From the desert to the world: Marking 40 years since the birth of Emirates 


Not only is Emirates one of the world’s leading airlines, but it has also grown to be one of the planet’s most recognized brands. Serving 136 destinations worldwide from its hub at Dubai International Airport (DXB) using a fleet of 260 wide-bodied aircraft, it has become a major player on the global aviation stage. 

However, this was not always the case. Remarkably, one only needs to go back less than four decades to find a time when Emirates did not even exist, and when legacy carriers such as British Airways, Gulf Air, Singapore Airlines, Pan Am, TWA, and others dominated long-haul international air travel instead.   

Fast forward to 2024 and Emirates is now one the world’s busiest airlines in terms of international travelers, carrying 51.9 million passengers and earning a staggering $37.4 billion in revenue in the year ending March 2024. So how did Emirates come from the mere idea of a way to boost tourism in the Middle East to boasting such lofty credentials?  

2024 marks four decades since the inception of Emirates. In this article, AeroTime takes a whistle-stop tour of the history of the airline and examines the key milestones that converted that early vision into the global megacarrier that the airline has become today. 

In the beginning

Before diving into the Emirates story, we first need to understand how Dubai became the international business and tourism powerhouse it is today, attracting 17.5 million visitors in 2023. 

In the late 1950s, Dubai was little more than a small fishing town. Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum became the country’s leader in 1958 and he would prove to be the catalyst Dubai needed to propel itself toward reinvention as the modern metropolis it is today. Fueled by the discovery of oil in 1966, the country was finally able to build up the financial reserves it required to develop Al Maktoum’s vision for Dubai – a city at the heart of global commerce, innovation, and tourism.   

Upon the formation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, Al Maktoum was finally free from restrictions imposed by the British and could forge ahead with his vision. By 1977, Dubai’s population had ballooned to over 200,000 people – four times larger than at the start of the decade. 

Stefano Vigorelli / Wikimedia Commons

The story of the Emirates airline comes to life in 1984 when Al Maktoum noticed that the bulk of visitors to Dubai were using Middle Eastern carrier Gulf Air to fly people to its hubs in Oman and Bahrain and connecting them to Dubai. He realized that, if the transfer at the intermediary airport could be eliminated, Dubai would become a far more attractive proposition for international travelers. 

With this concept, Al Maktoum asked Sir Maurice Flanagan, then managing director of handling company dnata, to investigate launching an airline. By December 1984, a comprehensive business plan was ready, and the name ‘Emirates’ was chosen for the enterprise. The plan proposed the formation of a new airline, based in Dubai itself, that would offer direct flights to the Emirate. From this early concept, the foundations for the new airline were laid.  

The new airline’s first flight

The new carrier was founded with a relatively small fund acquired from local private enterprises, plus a modest $10 million contribution from the Dubai royal family. Additionally, Al Maktoum and his team agreed to a support package from close ally Pakistan and its national airline Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), which provided both aircraft and operational expertise to the nascent carrier. 

Perry Hoppe / Wikimedia Commons

To get off the ground, the new airline leased a Boeing 737-300 and an Airbus A300-200 from PIA. It also acquired a pair of Boeing 727-200 aircraft that had been part of the Dubai Air Wing – the royal family’s private ‘airline’.

The carrier’s first flight was from Dubai to Karachi on October 25, 1985 (EK600) followed by an inaugural flight to Mumbai. In its first year of operation, the carrier transported 260,000 passengers. In the same period, local rival Gulf Air saw a drop of 56% in its annual profits. 

Early ambitions for growth

In 1987, having established itself as a viable airline, Emirates embarked on an ambitious growth plan. It began expanding its fleet by taking delivery of its first wholly owned aircraft, an Airbus A310-300 on July 3, 1987 (registered A6-EKA). Over the following years, the fleet expanded with the arrival of 13 more A310s and seven larger capacity A300s.  

In the same year, Emirates launched its first flights to Europe, with a daily service from Dubai to London-Gatwick Airport (LGW), plus Frankfurt services following shortly after.  

By the end of 1987, Emirates was flying to a total of 11 destinations, including Istanbul and Male (Maldives). In its first five years of operations, Emirates grew its network to take in 14 destinations from Dubai. These included Mumbai, Delhi, Karachi, Amman, Colombo, Cairo, Dhaka, Male, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Damascus, Jeddah, and Kuwait.  

JetPix / Wikimedia Commons

Just three years later, the carrier had added Bangkok, Manila, and Singapore to its international network, with direct services to Hong Kong commencing in 1991. By this time, Emirates was transporting around 1.6 million passengers per year and had become one of the fastest-growing airlines in the world. 

The first Gulf War in 1990-1991 had threatened to destabilize Emirates’ growth plans, but in a way, the airline actually benefitted from the conflict, as many neighboring airlines reduced their flying programs to the region as a result. When the war ended in 1991, the Emirates fleet comprised eight A310s and six A300s, and the carrier was serving 37 destinations. 

The first Boeings arrive

In 1992, Emirates entered its next stage of expansion, ordering seven Boeing 777-200s (one 777-200 and six 777-200ER aircraft) with a further seven options. That same year, it also became something of a trailblazer among airlines in terms of in-flight entertainment by being the first to install video systems in all seats in every cabin class throughout its fleet. 

JetKat / Shutterstock

The introduction of the 777s allowed the carrier to commence flights to Australia (Melbourne) in 1996. Additionally, the airline introduced the Airbus A330-200 to its fleet in 1999. In all, the airline operated 29 of the European twinjets in its fleet, until the last one was retired in 2016.  

By the end of the 1990s, Emirates’ confidence in its growth strategy seemed limitless. In May 1998, the airline spent $70 million in purchasing a 43% stake in Air Lanka, soon to become known as SriLankan Airlines, although this stake was eventually sold back to the Sri Lankan government in 2008.  

Kletr / Shutterstock

By the close of the 20th Century, passenger arrival figures at Dubai International Airport had hit the 11 million mark, thanks largely to the success of Emirates. During the financial year 1999/2000, the company carried 4.7 million passengers on its fleet of 32 aircraft, serving 50 destinations worldwide. 

Emirates in the new millennium

Emirates saw a setback in its expansion plans in 2001 and 2002 following the 9/11 attacks in New York, but the airline remained steadfast in its ambitions. Between 2004 and 2011, it placed orders with Boeing that would significantly expand its growing widebodied fleet. These orders included 114 Boeing 777-300ERs for long-range flights, plus ten further Boeing 777-200LR aircraft for ultra-long-range routes. At the time of writing, Emirates remains the world’s biggest operator of 777 aircraft. 

Airbus aircraft would also feature heavily in Emirates’ plans, with an order for seven Airbus A380 ‘Superjumbos’ being placed at the Farnborough Airshow in 2000, plus options for a further five aircraft. As such, Emirates became the first airline to sign up for the type.  

The carrier also ordered 20 A340 aircraft, although some of these orders would later be canceled. The first A380 arrived at Emirates in 2008. 

InsectWorld / Shutterstock

With the introduction of more ultra-long-haul aircraft, Emirates began to expand across the Atlantic and beyond. Having seen that European flag carriers were capturing much of the market from the Middle East to North and South American destinations, Emirates was keen to get a slice of the action. The move paid off, as the airline began to attract large numbers of customers traveling from the Far East, India, and South Asia to North America, using Dubai as the transfer point, rather than the more traditional connecting airports in Europe such as London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Paris. 

In 2005, Emirates made history with an order for 42 additional Boeing 777s, in a deal worth $9.7 billion. At the time, this broke records as the largest Boeing 777 order ever. 

Fleet rationalization 

As older aircraft in the fleet were retired (such as the Airbus A330s, A340s, and early 7777s), Emirates cemented its route network and fleet around just two aircraft types – the Boeing 777-300ER and the Airbus A380. In 2020, its fleet comprised 151 Boeing 777s plus a total of 115 Airbus A380s making Emirates the largest operator of the type in the world.  

The airline made the A380 work for it, in a way that no other carrier has been able to, largely due to Dubai’s geographical location, the huge amount of connecting traffic through Dubai International Airport from all corners of the world, and the specific routes on which the A380 is deployed. At the 2010 Berlin Air Show, Emirates ordered an additional 32 A380s, worth US$11.5 billion. 

Emirates Airbus A380

Between 2000 and 2010, the airline added a further 46 destinations routes to its global route network. Cities that welcomed Emirates services for the first time during this period were Bahrain, Sydney, Entebbe, Milan, Chennai, Birmingham,  Dusseldorf, Hyderabad, Casablanca, Khartoum, Perth, Mauritius, Osaka, Kochi, Moscow, Auckland, Brisbane,  Lagos, Accra, Shanghai, Glasgow, Vienna, New York, Christchurch, Seychelles, Seoul, Thiruvananthapuram,  Abidjan, Hamburg, Kolkata, Addis Ababa, Beijing, Tunis, Bengaluru, Venice, Newcastle, Sao Paulo, Ahmedabad, Toronto, Houston,  Cape Town, Guangzhou, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Durban and Luanda.  

2010 to 2020

In 2013, Concourse A, the world’s first bespoke A380 facility, opened at Dubai International Airport, expanding the airport’s capacity to 75 million passengers per year. As a purpose-built home to the Emirates’ A380 fleet, Concourse A features dedicated Emirates First and Business Class lounges spanning over 19,000sq m, all offering direct boarding to the upper deck of the A380 aircraft via high-level airbridges. 

In 2014, boasting an estimated total value of US$3.7 billion, Emirates marked its 30th anniversary. The airline was named the world’s ‘most valuable airline brand’, and the Middle East’s most valuable brand overall, by the publication Brand Finance. In 2016, Emirates was named the World’s Best Airline and received its 12th consecutive award for the best In-flight Entertainment at the 2016 Skytrax World Airline Awards.  

In 2017, seeing a gap in the market for short-haul routes from Dubai that were not being economically served by its widebodied fleet, Emirates became a leading partner in the formation of its sister carrier flydubai. This carrier operated its first flight in 2019 and now has a network of 125 destinations served by a fleet of 87 aircraft. It is celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2024, and to date, it has carried over 100 million passengers. 

At the Dubai Airshow in 2019, Emirates ordered 30 Boeing 7879 Dreamliner aircraft worth $8.8 billion, in addition to a $16 billion order for 50 Airbus A350s, with the first of these aircraft due to be delivered to Dubai in mid-2024. 

Emirates A350

Rounding off a busy year in Emirates’ history, 2019 also saw the airline perform a world record-breaking flight. Over 540 volunteer passengers from 145 nationalities took off on a special Emirates flight (flight number EK2019), breaking the Guinness World Record for the most nationalities on a single aircraft. The historic A380 flight took place to mark UAE National Day and the UAE Year of Tolerance, to showcase the diversity and unity of the citizens and residents of the UAE. 

By the end of the decade, Emirates had added a further 54 routes to its network from Dubai. These latest destinations were Tokyo-Narita, Amsterdam, Prague, Madrid, Dakar, Medina, Basra, Geneva, Copenhagen, St Petersburg, Baghdad, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Dublin, Lusaka, Harare, Dallas Fort Worth, Seattle, Ho Chi Minh, Barcelona, Lisbon, Washington DC, Adelaide, Lyon, Phuket, Warsaw, Algiers, Tokyo-Haneda, Stockholm, Clark, Conakry, Sialkot, Kabul, Taipei, Boston, Abuja, Chicago, Oslo, Brussels, Budapest, Bali, Orlando, Bologna, Istanbul via Sabiha Gokcen Airport, Cebu, Hanoi, Yangon, Fort Lauderdale,  Newark, Zagreb, Phnom Penh, London Stansted, Santiago de Chile, Edinburgh, Porto, and Mexico City.  

Modern-day Emirates  

Emirates has grown to become one of the world’s top airlines, particularly when considering the number of passengers flown and the quality of its premium cabins. It is renowned for having some of the best first and business class cabins in the air today, at a time when many airlines are scrapping first class altogether. It also offers onboard lounges, private suites, and showers to first-class passengers, having become the first airline to offer such a facility on a commercial flight.   


In 2023, Emirates also introduced a fourth cabin alternative, namely premium economy. While late to the party compared to many other international airlines, its premium economy product has already made headlines and won numerous awards. The new cabins were first rolled out on the carrier’s flagship A380s but are now being introduced on the Boeing 777-300ER fleet too.  

Later in 2024, the duopoly of the A380 and the 777-300ER in the Emirates fleet will finally be broken up with the arrival of the first of 50 Airbus A350-900s. Additionally, the 15 Boeing 787-9s and 15 Boeing 787-10s ordered at Farnborough in 2019 are expected to join them from 2025.   


Looking further ahead, the airline has 115 of the yet-to-be-certified Boeing 777X on order, which will be used in due course to replace older 777s and possibly some A380s. At the time of writing, the carrier has 89 of its 119 Airbus A380s in service, with the remaining 30 currently in storage.     


From its relatively humble beginnings, Emirates has become completely unrecognizable from the bold upstart that flew an aging leased Boeing 737-300 from Dubai to Karachi in October 1985.

Now flying a huge fleet of modern aircraft to a dazzling array of destinations across the globe, it’s unlikely that Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum could ever have envisaged such a success story when he first imagined launching a national carrier based in Dubai back in 1984.    

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