Soaring high

Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum talks about Emirates airline’s expansion plans, the new airport, the future of Dubai and more

Dubai’s phenomenal growth, which has now reached breathtaking proportions, is scheduled to continue, and Emirates’ expansion has been carefully planned to reflect the government’s growth strategy, says Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, president of the Dubai Department of Civil Aviation and chairman of the Emirates Group.

“Dubai is incredible,” says Sheikh Ahmed. “Any project which the government has launched has attracted investors who have blind faith and trust, who know that they will not be disappointed, and who believe that they will reap rewards from their investment. This applies also to joint venture projects, which bring together the public and government sectors.”
He continues: “We accept that Dubai’s growth is difficult to control and even I have been surprised at the levels of growth, which have placed strains on the infrastructure. However, the government does not want to slow this growth and the good thing is that plans are in place to improve the infrastructure.”
Sheikh Ahmed points out that even at the airport, growth levels have exceeded original expectations. “Look at our new airport which is now only four years old and has already reached the maximum capacity of 22 million passengers. Last year we handled 21.7 million, this year we will reach 25 million and next year, when our new terminal comes on line, we expect to handle 30 million passengers. Control can be achieved by slowing growth, but this is not what the government wants to do.”
According to Sheikh Ahmed, the ‘Emirates product’ is the basis of the airline’s consistent success and rapid growth. “Our route network provides connections to most points around the world, providing passengers with what they want which is to get from point to point in the shortest possible time,” he says, adding that 90 per cent of its flights are non-stop services.
But despite the airline’s rapid growth, Emirates has managed to maintain control of all aspects through a combination of clear planning and meticulous management. “In our business, planning is crucial and lead times between placing orders for aircraft and their delivery provide us with the ability to control our growth. Emirates is well known as an expanding airline so when it comes to staff recruitment, for example, we receive 25,000 applications each month. This is also due to Dubai’s lifestyle, which has helped attract people looking for an excellent social life and living environment.”
Emirates’ order for 45 A380 super jumbos has raised concerns over what many would regard as a massive capacity expansion. Sheikh Ahmed believes that these concerns are unfounded and that Emirates’ purchase – of what is currently one-third of the A380 production line – makes complete sense.
“We already fly the 777-300 with configurations of 430 seats. Our first A380 aircraft, which is scheduled for delivery next year, will have 480 seats, so I believe that even with an extra 100 or 150 more seats we will have no problems with over capacity,” he says. “In fact, we currently have problems in trying to expand on our existing routes due to bi-lateral restrictions and airport slot problems. The A380 will enable us to increase capacity with no additional frequencies.”
Sheikh Ahmed also believes that the A380 will help bring more traffic from all over the world, stimulating the development of Dubai’s airports. “Dubai is at the centre for people travelling from New Zealand to Europe. The shortest way is with Emirates via Dubai and from here to any point in the region. We are also increasing services to Africa, providing better connections to places such as Accra where we now have non-stop services.”
Emirates’ growth is also dependent on what will be massive investments in airport infrastructure. Dubai’s Terminal 3, which will be completed in 2006, will be complemented by a brand new airport at Jebel Ali, which will initially be cargo specific but is also expected to handle overflows from the current airport.
These developments are vital to the future growth of the airline, says Sheikh Ahmed. “Our plan to grow the Emirates fleet to 150 aircraft cannot be achieved without the government creating an excellent operational hub. This is why the government and airport has committed to spend $4 billion to create the right environment for Emirates to grow. With the completion of the second phase of Dubai International Airport will have the capacity to handle 70 million passengers. This will also encourage other carriers to increase their flights.”
Jebel Ali Airport City project will cover 140 sq km and will include, not just an airport, but also several smaller cities which will cater to the financial, industrial, service and tourism industry needs connected to the aviation industry. The core of the city will be one of the world’s largest airports.
The airport at Jebel Ali will be built 40km from the existing Dubai International Airport adjacent to Jebel Ali Port and Jebel Ali Free Zone. It will be surrounded by a strategic road network linking the airport to the different emirates and some of the GCC countries.
Emirates also plans to increase frequencies and services to the US, with destinations such as Chicago and Houston in Texas on the radar.
Emirates’ ambitious plan to increase its fleet to over 150 planes by 2012 is by no means optimistic, according to Sheikh Ahmed. “Ten years ago, in an interview in New York, I forecast that we would have a fleet of 40 aircraft,” he recalls. “Today, we have doubled that number with a fleet of 80.”
The growth in private aviation in the region has been significant but Sheikh Ahmed indicates that Emirates is not looking at this sector. “We will continue to promote our First and Business class traffic but we will stick to our core business as a mass market carrier. Although we are involved in the maintenance of other carriers, we are primarily dedicated to the Emirates fleet where we are investing Dh1 billion ($272.25 million) on engineering facilities.”
Whilst Emirates continues to market itself worldwide and has been described as the “airline of the earth,” the GCC market is still very important. “I see increasing schedules within this region due to the demands of our customers,” Sheikh Ahmed says. “More and more GCC nationals, with family requirements including schooling and universities, are visiting Dubai.”