MIAMI – Considered today’s most ubiquitous airline, Emirates (EK) has been trotting nearly all points of the globe from its base in Dubai (DXB).

The carrier offers several thousand weekly flights with an ever-growing modern and best-in-class fleet of aircraft both from Airbus and Boeing. Initiating operations with two aircraft, the airline currently boasts a fleet of 250+ aircraft. Such is the huge growth in just two decades and a half.

Emirates A380. Photo: Fabrizio Spicuglia/Airways

A Start from Nothing


When Gulf Air, the then major airline of the middle east started to cut several flights to Dubai in the 1980s, a void was created and a potential opportunity for a newcomer to take over this market. In no time, Dubai’s Royal family came up with a plan to launch an airline set for 1985.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the UAE Minister of Defence and a member of Dubai’s progressive royal family approached Sir Maurice Flanagan, who was then the managing director of Dnata, in order to help set up an airline based out of Dubai.

Mr. Flanagan was allotted a hefty task with no room for failure. He was to launch the airline in just 5 months with US$10m in funding. He was told by the management that the airline had to “look good, be good, and make money.”

A few months later, a complete and thorough business plan was ready for UAE’s first airline, ‘Emirates’.

Emirates then announced its first few destinations, which were Karachi (KHI), Bombay (BOM), and New Delhi (DEL). The airline wet-leased two aircraft from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), a Boeing 737-200 (AP-BCD) and an Airbus A300 B4 (AP-BBM). The royal family also maintained two Boeing 727-200 Adv. that were also transferred to Emirates.

Emirates Skycargo Boeing 777F A6-EFJ – Photo : Ervin eslami/Airways

The First Flight


On October 25, 1985, EK-600 took off from Dubai (DXB) for Karachi, Pakistan. BOM and DEL followed soon.

The first year was a milestone itself as the airline transported 260,000 passengers and 10,000 tons of cargo. The impressive performance had already impacted Gulf Air (GF), which suffered a 56% drop in profits the same year and a continued loss the following year.

The first five years of operations saw EK’s network reach 14 destinations.

  • 1985 – Karachi, Mumbai, Delhi
  • 1986 – Amman, Colombo, Cairo, Dhaka

On July 3, 1987, EK welcomed its first fully-owned aircraft, an Airbus A310-304 bearing registration A6-EKA, which received a grand ceremony after its arrival from Toulouse (TLS). The aircraft was designed to offer a superior class of flying, beating its rivals.

Just three days after receiving the type, the carrier launched a daily direct flight from Dubai to London Gatwick (LGW). In 1987 EK further added flights to Frankfurt (FRA) via Istanbul and to Male (MLE), Maldives.

  • 1988 – Damascus (DAM)
  • 1989 – Jeddah (JED), Kuwait (KWI)

And so, the airline saw a staggering growth of 30% each year. 1989 also saw EK stretch far east and connected DXB to Bangkok (BKK), Manila (MNL), and Singapore (SIN). Hong Kong (HKG) was followed in 1991. 

A330-900 Emirates. Photo: Airbus

Emirates in the 90s


During the Gulf War, EK was the only airline flying in the area, which boosted profits up to nearly US$100m per year.

In 1992, Dubai’s new terminal was opened, which provided the airline another opportunity to expand. However, the major headline of that year was when the airline placed an order for seven Boeing 777-200, which were delivered in 1996.

The 777’s maiden flight was to London Heathrow (LHR) followed by an inaugural flight to Melbourne (MEL), Australia, initially via Jakarta (CGK), which later became Singapore as CGK suffered low profitability.

Emirates airline was the first to:

  • Set up IFE on all its seats.
  • Introduce telecommunications on the Airbus fleet – in all three classes.
  • Set up an in-flight fax facility for customers to stay in touch while in the air.
  • Ordering a US$20m Airbus full-flight simulator.

In May 1998, Emirates held a 43.6% stake in Sri Lankan Airlines (Air Lanka then) after striking a US$70m deal with the Government of Sri Lanka. EK managed Sri Lankan (UL) for a period of 10 years before handing it back to the Lankan Government in 2008.

The 90s saw the airline grow its fleet with more 777-200’s and Airbus A330-200’s, and its network covered nearly 30 global destinations by the end of the decade.

By 1999, Dubai itself hit the 11 million mark with passenger traffic, setting itself as a global aviation hub and Emirates carried 4.7 million passengers on its fleet of 32 aircraft.

In 2000, the airline placed an order for seven Airbus A380 aircraft. This move took the airline from a small airline operating in a desert to one recognized globally. On joining the fleet, the A380 went on to become the backbone of EK making it a leading airline and also a trademark.


Featured image: Emirates Boeing 777-300ER A6-ENK. Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways