Published in July 2015 issue

Flydubai is not just another successful nofrills low-cost carrier. Located in a region where luxury, efficiency and competition are paramount, this airline has managed to evolve into a model of its own. Flying low cost doesn’t necessarily mean flying cheap.

Think of an airline in a category of its own. Not a low-cost carrier, as it offers a business class. Not a full service carrier, because passengers in economy have to pay for food, drinks, and for using the In-Flight Entertainment System (IFE). Passengers are charged for choosing seats with more legroom, yet served premium meals upfront.

By Matteo Legnani

You would be thinking of flydubai (FZ/FDB), an airline born six years ago in the fruitful and ubiquitous no-frills style of other low-cost carriers (LCC), but which has evolved into a model of its own.

The birth of this low-cost sister of Emirates (EK) was announced by the Emirate of Dubai in March 2008; the announcement was followed by an order of 50 Boeing 737- 800s worth AED13.7 billion (USD3.74  billion) at the 46th Farnborough Air Show in July 2008. The aim was to serve markets within five hours of flight—or 3,500 miles (5,500km)—from Dubai, where demand was insufficient to support Emirates’ widebody service, or on routes already served by EK, to offer a low-fare alternative for both leisure travelers and the diaspora of migrant workers who have contributed to building the modern Dubai.

His Highness Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, (uncle of the current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid  Al Maktoum), chief executive officer of the Emirates Group, was appointed chairman, while the keys of the company were given to CEO Ghaith Al Ghaith (former Emirates’ executive vice-president commercial operations worldwide, with 20 years’ experience in the aviation industry), and to Chief Operating Officer Kenneth Gile, a former pilot and director of operations at Southwest Airlines (WN), chosen for his low-cost carrier (LCC) experience and specifically for his focus on aircraft utilization and electronic booking.

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THE BIRTH OF FLYDUBAI

The airline officially took off on June 1, 2009, when the first flight departed from Dubai International Airport (DXB) to Beirut (BEY). In the first month of operations, the airline added three more destinations: Amman (AMM), Damascus (DAM), and Alexandria (ALY). The response from the market was immediately enthusiastic and, in the first three months, the airline transported over 100,000 passengers.

The Boeing 737s, fitted with a single 189-seat all-economy class cabin, are painted in a striking livery with blue and orange colors reflecting both the Dubai landscape and coastline: blue to represent the cool, calm waters of the Arabian Gulf and orange to summon the warmth of the UAE climate. Inside, each of the Recaro lightweight seats (installed with a variable 29” to 31” pitch) feature a 12.1” IFE screen offering multimedia content for a fee.

“As an airline, we focus on simplicity, accessibility, and new and innovative ways of interacting with our customers. These are all things common to Dubai and we are keen to see them reflected in our airline,” said CEO Al Ghaith during the ceremony preceding the inaugural flight.

flydubai chose to fly out of DXB’s Terminal 2, located on the eastern side of the airport’s two parallel runways, opposite Terminals 1 and 3. The building, inaugurated in 1998 to alleviate congestion at T1 and completely renovated in 2007, can manage ten million passengers per year. Besides FZ, the terminal is used by 18 additional carriers, among them African Express Airways (XU), Air India Express (IX), Ariana Afghan (FG), Iran Aseman (EP), Iraqi Airways (IA), Kish Air (Y9), Qeshm Air (IRQ), Rotana Jet (RG), Tarom (RO), Kyrgyzstan Airlines (R8), Turkmenistan Airlines (T5), and TUIfly (X3).

The plant of the building is similar to that of many airports served by Ryanair in Europe, with a surface area of 161,500sqft (15,000sqm) in a single level, without air bridges. The 50 check-in desks, half of which are dedicated to flydubai, are located right in front of the entry doors, giving access to a very bright and airy hall characterized by floor-to-ceiling windows on the landside. After passport and security controls, the boarding area includes a food court, a 20,000sqft (2,400sqm) duty free outlet, two lounges for business travelers and six gates. Buses provide access to the airplanes, parked at the 43 remote stands in front of the terminal.

“During the first six years of operations, T2 has been a key factor in the success of flydubai, being a sort of dedicated facility that allows our passengers a faster and more pleasant experience as they travel,” Al Ghaith told Airways.

The first seven months of operations of flydubai were a complete success. The airline closed 2009 with a network of nine destinations served by four aircraft. The one millionth passenger jumped aboard in July 2010, and the five millionth at the end of 2011. In 2012, the airline transported 5.1 million travelers; the same number it had carried in its first two years and a half of operations. That total became 6.82 million (+30%) in 2013 and 7.25 million (+6%) in 2014, with an average of 1,400 weekly departures from Terminal 2. The largest increase in passenger numbers between 2013 and 2014 was recorded in Central Asia (+57%), followed by Africa (+14%), Europe (+11%) and the Sub-continent (+11%). FZ steadily ventured beyond the Middle East, first towards the Indian Subcontinent and later to Africa, former Soviet states, and Eastern Europe, where it launched five new routes at the end of 2014: to Bratislava (BTS), Prague (PRG), Budapest (BUD), Sofia (SOF) and Zagreb (ZAG).

The original nine cities served in 2009 had become 23 in 2010, 40 in 2011, 48 in 2012, 63 in 2013, and 85 in 2014. By the first quarter of 2015, these had grown to 95 with the additions of Chennai, India (MAA), Sylhet, Bangladesh (ZYL), Najran, Saudia Arabia (EAM), Hargeisa, Somalia (HGA) and five new points in Iran: Shiraz (SYZ), Isfahan (IFN), Ahwaz (AWZ), Hamadan (HDM) and Tabriz (TBZ). In 2014, flydubai also increased frequencies on many of its existing routes, such as Beirut (21 weekly flights); Kuwait (77 flights a week); the Omani cities of Muscat (to 41 from 28 weekly flights) and Salalah (to five from three flights a week); and Tbilisi, Georgia, which went to a daily service.


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A LOW COST CARRIER TO THREE CONTINENTS

flydubai has come a long way from the original LCC that pursued the model of carriers like Southwest and Ryanair. Today, it is a true global carrier that flies into three continents (Asia, Europe and Africa), with its 95-destination network spanning 4,500 miles (7,200km) from its easternmost point in Chittagong, Bangladesh, to its westernmost in Prague, Czech Republic, and 4,600 miles (7,300km) from its northernmost point in Yekaterinburg, Russia, to its southernmost in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The airline has put a pause on expanding those borders. “We are fortunate to have more than 2.5 billion people within our geographic reach of a six-hour flying radius from Dubai. We believe that this presents plenty of opportunity for expansion and growth in the coming years,” said Al Ghaith.

The fleet has grown accordingly, the initial four Boeing 737-800s becoming 11 in 2010; 21 in 2011; 28 in 2012; 34 in 2013; 43 in 2014; and 46 in the first quarter of 2015, with four pending deliveries due at the end of this year. The aircrafts’ average age, at present, is of just 2.4 years—making this one of the youngest fleets in the world.

Consistent with its former motto of “Get going” (the new one is “flydubai, to where you want to be”), the carrier didn’t rest on its success. Even before receiving all the aircraft of the original order placed in Farnborough, the Emirati airline had placed a new order in November 2013, during the Dubai Air Show, comprising 86 aircraft (11 Boeing 737-800NGs and 75 Boeing 737 MAX 8s), and purchased rights for 25 more Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, thus confirming its plans to keep a single-type fleet, a measure that helps to keep costs in trim and secure the best operational performance and efficiency. The deliveries of these 11 Boeing 737NGs are scheduled between 2016 and 2017, while the 75 MAXs are expected between 2017 and 2023.

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A DEDICATED BUSINESS CLASS

The end of 2013 saw what was certainly the biggest change since the airline’s birth: the introduction of a business class cabin. Since October of that year, all newly delivered aircraft have had a two-class cabin configuration, which has been retrofitted to previously received 737s, thus offering two-class service on almost all flights. Upfront, there are 12 rows with four seats abreast (in a 2-2 configuration). The Italian leather covered 21-inch wide seats have a 42-inch pitch and recline 45 degrees, allowing comfort even during the longest sectors in the network. A fixed bulkhead separates this section from the 162-seat economy class cabin that has been upgraded, with a pitch increased to 32 inches, similar to that found on Emirates’ long haul fleet.

The Business class came with a dedicated lounge at DXB’s Terminal 2. Inaugurated in July 2014 and located immediately after the passport and security controls, the lounge offers an area of 3,000sqft (280sqm) on two floors, and has a contemporary and dynamic look, with free Wi-Fi available everywhere. On the ground floor, there is an ample buffet area offering cold and hot dishes plus a wide choice of soft and alcoholic drinks, while the upper floor features a coffee bar and resembles a living room, with sofas and arm chairs, where travelers can relax before their flights. The colors of the ambiance recall those of the livery of the 737s, with orange and blue furnishing dominating the area.

Despite the introduction of a business class, flydubai has remained loyal to its low-fare model. Browsing the airline’s website one month before a departure in mid-April, it was possible to get a Dubai-Moscow (Vnukovo) return fare of AED1,690 (USD460) in economy class, and a business class ticket at AED5,990 (USD1,620) — much less than Emirates, which sold the Dubai- Moscow (Domodedovo) tickets on the same date at AED2,496 (USD679) and AED11,265 (USD3,067), respectively. On the short haul, the Dubai-Doha return fare stood at AED385 (USD105) on FZ and at AED765 (USD208) with EK in economy, while the business fare was AED1,895 (USD516) on flydubai and AED3,415 (USD929) on Emirates.

POSITIVE RESULTS

The model works: announcing its annual results for 2014 in February, flydubai reported a net profit on AED250 million (USD68 million), an increase of 12.3% compared to 2013, with total revenue of AED4.4 billion (USD1.2 billion) for the 12-month period.

“We have long recognized the importance of aviation for our economic growth, and flydubai continues to make a key contribution to our economy with its strategy of opening up previously underserved routes,” said chairman Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum. “Recording profitability for the third consecutive full year, the 2014 results show that the recent order for more aircraft as well as investments in the offering in the ground and in the air have been the right strategy for the airline.”

CEO Al Ghaith added: “2014 saw flydubai open up a record number of new routes in what was a demanding year. The continued investments in our people and operations have strengthened our business and ensure that we are well positioned for sustained growth in the future.”

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A FIRST-HAND LOOK

Airways tested both FZ products on a turnaround flight between Dubai and Muscat, with the outgoing leg in business class and the incoming one in economy. With a departure time scheduled at 14:55, we arrived at the airport with just one hour to spare. The check-in and controls at Terminal 2 were hassle-free, thanks to the short walking distance of this compact terminal and the large number of desks open when it wasn’t even rush hour. Having a business class ticket, we proceeded to the flydubai lounge, located just a few feet away from the boarding area. With 50 minutes to STD, we enjoyed the lounge’s upper floor, where a staff member quickly came and asked whether we wanted something to drink or eat. We opted for an espresso from the coffee bar and a glass of water, which were brought to the table (a dedicated personal service that is not the norm even in the most acclaimed lounges around the world).

Thirty minutes later, the flight information screens indicated that boarding had begun. A three minutes bus ride took us to a Boeing 737-800 for the 50-minute hop to the capital of Oman (a journey that takes up to five hours by car). The new Boeing Sky Interior on this aircraft looked immaculate, with azure walls, blue carpets and 12 huge cream-colored Italian leather seats featuring headrests, built-in lumbar supports and dedicated universal power sockets for electronic devices. We settled in the first row, noting the presence of a bottle of mineral water and noise protective earphones in the niche between the two seats. Before doors closed, the two flight attendants (FA) dedicated to the six premium passengers onboard proceeded to offer a drink service that included water, orange juice and champagne. Hot towels were offered during the taxi to runway 30L, from which we took off at 15.00, just five minutes behind schedule.

On flights lasting more than 90 minutes, business-class passengers can choose a hot meal from an internationally inspired menu, while, on shorter ones—like this quick hop to Muscat—the fare runs to lighter cold meals. Ten minutes into the flight, while we were still climbing to our intended cruise altitude of 25,000ft, the FAs distributed drink menus and asked for our preference from two options, a grilled vegetable roll or a chicken breast sandwich. The latter was served on white china placed on a linen-covered tray, together with a small dish of pastry and a generous dose of Australian Jacob’s Creek Shiraz wine poured into a stem glass from a properly opened bottle.

The aircraft’s inflight entertainment (IFE), with a choice of over 200 movies, TV shows, documentaries, movies and games, was more than one would expect from such an airline. The noise-cancelling headphones guaranteed a great quality of sound for music. Dutyfree items could be chosen from the onboard flydubai Shop magazine and ordered through the IFE. The cabin crew brought the ordered products to the passengers seats for viewing before payment.

Top of descent occurred 15 minutes out of Muscat International Airport (MCT), where we landed on the new 26R runway at 15:45 and then taxied in front of MCT’s soon-to-beopened cross-shaped new terminal. After a quick disembarkation from the front door, a priority bus exclusive to business-class passengers quickly transferred us to the old terminal.

Not surprisingly, we did not enjoy these privileges 45 minutes later, when boarding flight FZ 046 back to DXB. In economy, the colors of the 3-3 configured cabin matched those of the livery, with orange, blue and brown seats, each fitted with a personal IFE screen. At the moment of booking, we had paid an additional AED40 (USD10) for increased legroom in economy class, choosing the first seat right behind the bulkhead.

Given the 40-minute flight time, FAs immediately asked passengers whether they desired a snack or a drink. From the menu placed in the front seat pocket, one could choose a chicken or a turkey sandwich for AED15 (US $4), a coffee or a muffin for AED12 (US $3), or a beer for AED32 (US $8). Curiously (and probably FZ is the only airline in the world to do so), if you experience a headache, insomnia or “an aching body” in flight, you can buy medicines on board, too. At 24,000ft, we crossed the eastern tip of the Arabian Desert, with the dunes changing from gold to red as we approached Dubai, where we landed on runway 30L at 17:48, with a total flight time of just 43 minutes.

FZ service in business class is superb, attentive, warm and personalized—comparable in all aspects to that offered by emblazoned carriers. Economy is fine but, for only USD10, you can transform it in a very comfortable experience, and, on long-haul flights, the individual IFE is a guarantee against boredom.