Skip to main content

An Emirates Airlines plane is parked at Dubai World Central airport

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

For Emirates Airline, all routes lead to Dubai. The strategically located aviation hub is the centrepiece of the carrier's ambitious expansion strategy to tap economic growth in India, China and the Middle East.

For its competitors, the renegade carrier and its grand plans have the potential to change global air traffic patterns, disrupting a fragile industry that's already under pressure from rising fuel prices.

Emirates' game plan - funnelling travellers through Dubai instead of Europe, and on larger and larger planes - has worked wonders so far. The state-owned carrier has managed to not only survive but thrive as an independent carrier, declining to join one of the three major airline alliances in the world - Star, SkyTeam and Oneworld. When it launched in 1985, Emirates flew only to Pakistan and had just two planes. Now, it flies to more than 110 destinations in 66 countries and has some 150 wide-body jets, including 15 Airbus A380 double-decker planes and 85 Boeing 777s. Emirates has become the world's sixth-largest airline for international passenger traffic.

Story continues below advertisement

Emirates' success reflects the emergence of a new world economic order, one in which other Gulf carriers such as Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways and Doha-based Qatar Airways are also rapidly expanding, said Robert Kokonis, president of airline consulting firm AirTrav Inc. "The balance of economic power is shifting away from North America and Europe," said Mr. Kokonis, who depicts Emirates as a trailblazer seeking to take advantage of Dubai's location in the thick of global air traffic routes.

But an array of nervous rivals warn the carrier is trying to muscle in on territory long held - and amply served - by the old-guard "legacy airlines."

Air Canada and Germany's Lufthansa, partners in the Star Alliance of global airlines, are pitted against the Dubai-based carrier for transatlantic traffic. They view Emirates, owned by the Dubai government, as a clear and present danger to their lucrative international flights.

Seeking to protect their Frankfurt hub, the two partners allege that Emirates receives subsidies from the Dubai government in the form of cheap landing fees at Dubai International Airport, an accusation that Emirates hotly disputes.

The airline's transition from tiny regional carrier to global player has happened quickly. During its first two decades, Emirates easily won approval for landing slots from foreign governments because it was too small to be considered a threat by other carriers.

That started to change last year, after Emirates sharply increased its orders for new Airbus A380s and Boeing 777s - planes that are larger and more fuel-efficient than the Airbus A330s and A340s in its fleet. More than 190 aircraft are on order, including about 75 Airbus A380 double-decker planes, which seat almost 500 passengers, and nearly 50 Boeing 777s, which have room for about 400 travellers. In 2015, the 350-seat Airbus A350 will be introduced into the Emirates fleet.

Alarmed by Emirates' steady stream of new plane orders, some of the world's leading carriers - including Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France/KLM and Australia's Qantas - have publicly criticized its expansion strategy. Air Canada, for one, warned that Emirates is unfairly seeking to siphon off international traffic, and accused its rival of trying to dump seats into the Canadian market. "Few Canadians actually travel to Dubai as a destination and fewer still residents of Dubai travel to Canada," Air Canada chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu said in a speech last fall. Others critics pointed out that the A380 jumbo jets have been designated for Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, alleging Emirates wants to pick and choose among the top Canadian destinations, hammering at the heart of Air Canada.

Story continues below advertisement

Last fall, the Canadian government denied additional landing rights beyond the three already held by Emirates, a decision that the Harper government has stood by, despite heavy political pressure from the United Arab Emirates. Germany is still deciding whether to acquiesce to Lufthansa's lobbying and turn down Emirates' requests for more German landing rights.

Andrew Parker, senior vice-president of international affairs at Emirates, bristles at what he terms "Lufthansa propaganda." He said Emirates prides itself on having a young fleet of planes, and will retire about 100 jets, including older models of the Boeing 777, within the next decade as it takes delivery of new ones.

As for comparisons between Canada and Germany, Mr. Parker said they're overblown because the Gulf carrier already has access to 49 landing slots in Germany, compared with just three in Canada. A recovery in European carriers' revenue last year and "substantial aircraft orders from every region should counter the pessimism and cries for protection from some carriers, and confirm it is not just Emirates that believes long-term investment underpins profitability and growth," he said.

After Ottawa refused demands by Emirates and Etihad Airways for new landing rights at Toronto's Pearson International Airport in October, the UAE responded by ousting Canadian soldiers in November from Camp Mirage, a staging base near Dubai that had been used for nine years to supply the Afghanistan war. In December, the UAE imposed visa fees of up to $1,000 on Canadian visitors, further escalating tensions between Canada and the Arab country.

So far, the political feuding hasn't scared off air travellers, who appreciate Emirates' far-reaching network and its attentive in-flight service and quality meals - impressive enough for Air Transport World magazine to name it the world's "airline of the year" for 2011. The carrier specializes in long-haul flights connecting the globe's major cities: Are you flying from Toronto to Mumbai, or Sao Paulo to Delhi, or Milan to Sydney? Aboard Emirates, the common theme is a stopover in Dubai, one of seven sheikdoms in the UAE.

Even travellers who could take a non-stop flight between western Europe and southeast Asia have opted for Emirates since it offers the comfort of bigger and newer planes, as well as better departure times on competitive flight paths and posh seating pods in first class and the executive-class cabin. On the upper level of the Emirates-operated A380, there are 14 suites in first class and 76 lie-flat seats in business class. First class includes a lounge and two shower spas.

Story continues below advertisement

But in opting for Emirates and its mandatory Dubai stopover, passengers are forsaking the traditional aviation map, in which national-flag carriers carved out lucrative routes for themselves and their alliances by focusing on such cities as London, Paris and Frankfurt.

Many passengers are accustomed to flying through these European hubs en route to China, India and the Middle East. But Emirates wants to increase its flights from North America, South America and Europe - via Dubai - to China and India, and to a lesser extent, Africa and Russia. It's also counting on boosting traffic east to west, hoping to persuade more travellers in China and India to catch its planes when flying to Africa, Russia, North America, South America and Europe.

Those plans are of particular importance to Britain, for one, according to a research report by Royal Bank of Scotland, because of "the attraction of Dubai's tourist product to U.K. consumers and Dubai's position as a transit point" to India and Australia.

"It is a common concern that the very substantial aircraft orders of the Gulf carriers will take significant market share from European, Asian and U.S. network carriers," the report states, "and will threaten to upset the long-haul airline market in the way that low-cost carriers have destabilized the short-haul markets."

Fears that European airlines will be displaced by Emirates and other Gulf carriers are overstated, the report argues. But the RBS study does pinpoint concerns for air service to Canada: "From the perspective of European carriers, we think the major strategic issue will be that Gulf carriers are likely to gain very significant market share on traffic flows from India to the U.S. and Canada."

In Canadian skies, Emirates is a fairly recent arrival. It launched its service here in 2007, and introduced an Airbus A380 jumbo jet on its Toronto-Dubai route in mid-2009. With only three flights a week, the airline argues business travellers require daily service - hence its request for additional landing rights.

Canada is seen as a key battleground, because if Emirates can be halted here, that would provide ammunition for carriers in Europe and elsewhere to step up lobbying of their governments to reject or limit its expansion requests. But there's another factor affecting those political decisions: The main components for the Airbus A380 are built in France, Germany, Britain and Spain, employing thousands of workers. So industry analysts weren't surprised when France, ignoring Air France-KLM's lobby, recently granted approval to the UAE for 22 more French landing slots, boosting the total to 57 a week for the country's carriers.

In Germany, Lufthansa uses the Canadian dispute to bolster its lobbying. "A remarkable battle for market access is playing out between Canada and the UAE," Lufthansa said in a policy briefing to German politicians. "Hundreds of long-haul aircraft and enormous overcapacity have to be filled. Pressure is mounting on Germany, as well."

Lufthansa and other critics complain that the UAE subsidizes Dubai International Airport, effectively clearing the way for Emirates to grow at a "breakneck pace," and that it has unfair advantages that amount to "predatory" competition stemming from Dubai's low-tax regime and access to cheap labour, notably immigrant workers from India and Pakistan.

Emirates' Mr. Parker shrugs off the criticisms as sour grapes, saying Lufthansa is over-reacting to the airline's attempts to enter Stuttgart and the new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, set to open in mid-2012.

He said Ottawa considered "minuscule" improvements that were "utterly ridiculous," adding that Emirates would have been satisfied if it had been allowed daily landing rights in Toronto, with a promise to review potential expansion into Calgary and Vancouver.

That day will come, he believes. For in the world according to Emirates, it is only a matter of time before Ottawa and other governments bend, in a trend that will ultimately redraw the world's aviation maps.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.