I interviewed Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airline, last month in the Emirates HQ in Dubai. Not only did we talk about the latest aviation scenes, fleet decisions and how to navigate out of COVID, but we also talked about his personal aviation career. Here is the interview:

Do you remember which airplane was the very first one you ever flew on?

I used to fly on the Pan-Am Boeing 377 Stratocruiser as a child; I was looking around saying, yes, you know they've got lounges, they've got a dining room downstairs etc. So in all the years, we've got the A380 to where that was.

However, no I don't remember the first one. I did travel a lot as a kid throughout my formative years. I flew on super constellations and Stratocruisers....

The thing I remember most was the first Boeing 707 I flew on, which was in January 1960, it was an Air India 707. They were one of the first international carriers to get the 707. It was an amazing carrier that was so visionary, so yes I remember that one.

an airplane on the runway
Air India B707. Souce: Wikimedia Commons

I can even remember what I ate on the airplane. Sad looking as I might have been, in my shorts and my long socks, I travelled around a lot as an unaccompanied minor; I was always traveling on my own when I was seven or eight or nine, so these things were very impressionable. I can remember the internal layer of a super constellation of QANTAS or Air India. Yeah It's interesting, but I've got a bit of memory like an elephant and those kinds of things I always remember.

Why did you choose aviation?

It's like anybody else who has a passion or a hobby, why did you do that? You say, well I really like painting pictures and I'm really good at painting pictures. I have a gift for painting pictures.

I don't know what it is, so it's very difficult to ascertain for me. It was a passion. One of my brothers became a 747 captain with British airways and my father was a seafaring oil tanker captain, so this kind of travel thing was always in the blood.

a man sitting in chairs in front of a window with a camera

We were always flying and my brother became a pilot. He was interested in the front end, but I was always looking around the cabin thinking about how things worked. Even as a kid I was interested in the way things worked, as I progressed through my education and finished my degree I kind of really didn't want to do anything else.

Could I have done something else? Yes if I had the passion for it, but most probably no.

Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airline

Emirates is taking three more A380's ahead of the delivery schedule this year. Do you still believe in this airplane?

Very much so. We were really keen to take the last three aircraft of our order and, coincidentally, the last one that will ever be delivered this year; simply because we've refurbished the interiors or redesigned the interior to include Premium Economy. We've also taken the opportunity to refresh the Business Class cabin, the lounge upstairs, the showers and everything downstairs as well. So essentially it's like a new airplane coming out.

But your competitor's no longer believe in the A380 anymore...

I can't speak for them. They all have different business models as to how they use their fleet of A380s, the numbers that they have and where they deploy them; but for Emirates, the A380 is the linchpin for our network. We will have 118 when we get these three, they have been so successful for not only our bottom line but in defining what we are and where we intend to be and stay in the next few decades.

The A380 has been hugely popular. We decided a while back that this was the future for Emirates. Frankly, these airplanes that we are receiving later on this year will remain in the fleet until the 2030s; or at least as long as they are in line with growing environmental pressures with regard to what this airplane is actually doing. The way see it, we can put 615 seats into a two-class A380 and the fuel burn per seat is actually measured as a tad lower than it would be on some of the other wide body's.

The A380 will always be a very elegant solution to congestion slot problems at airfields. If people think that these aircraft are going to go away, then they need to think again.

Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airline

Once we're through the pandemic, air travel demand will return to where it was. Congestion will once again return to be a major factor in airline planning. The airports that we currently serve are still going to have the same kind of pressures as they had before.

So in the next five to seven years the A380 is likely to come more into its own than it has ever has done before.

How many planes are you going to refit with Premium Economy ?

Yes, we have a plan to retrofit 124 of our B777s with Premium Economy, those that aren't scheduled to go out of service that is, and we're going to do the whole lot. It's a very expensive operation, one that comes at a time when cash is king, but nevertheless, to move forward, we're going to do that.

All the new aircraft you have mentioned, the 787s, the 777xs, the A350s, will all have Premium Economy in there.

When are you expecting to receive the B777x?

A very good question, unfortunately, I cannot give you an answer at this stage. We are due to see our friends in Boeing soon, to try and establish what in fact is going on. So we are not altogether sure ourselves what's going to happen yet. So that's why these A380s are fairly important, so that we have some continuum of the fleet; also so that we don't have any concerns about when or what other aircraft are going to be used in the future.

How can we get through this without consistent government border policies? How can the aviation industry instil confidence for people to travel?

Well, it's a very good question and it is the $64,000 question out there at the moment. At the moment it's looking pretty bleak on the ability of governments to produce a standard protocol, with regard to accessibility of whatever it may be on the health side of things, vaccinations, PCRs, antigens etc.

It's a shame that there is such a discrepancy in the vaccine programs across the planet. For instance, only about 2% or 3% of Africa have been inoculated and it's not much better in South America. So, we have to sort that out as far as who takes the lead, the G7? the G20? I don't know. To just leave them there is going to be very counterproductive with regard to the OECD economies. It's very much in their interest to vaccinate the very markets they need to access and interact with. So in the end, I'm hoping sense will prevail.

Now, when's that going to happen? Probably not before the middle of next year, 2022.

Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airline

For instance, if you come out of the UK and go back into it you could be faced with 4 PCRs and we know what they cost. If you've got a family of four, you might well consider the trip is not worth it and you won't do it. That's all got to change if we're ever going to move on; we will get there eventually, but it's going to take longer than I initially thought.

a man in a suit sitting in a chair

The behaviors of flying may have also changed due to COVID. People may want to take direct flights instead of transiting via Dubai. Do you think that will hurt Emirates?

I'm afraid I don't subscribe to that. This is an argument that has been used extensively for the employment of the 787 and the single-aisle 321 XLR. The irony of it all is that, back in the nineties, we were going to both Boeing and Airbus and suggesting that we needed an aircraft that would do 14 or 16 hours nonstop with a full payload. We were kind of scoffed at that time, we were told that nobody would want to do that. We were told that of course people will want to get off and stretch their legs and all the other strange arguments. However, we really persevered with it and so we saw the A340-500 and B777-200/LR being produced. Then the capabilities of the manufacturers improved, when they realized that yes people really did want to go long haul nonstop.

So what you're seeing now is a belief that, okay if COVID is going to contract, people are going to go over longer distances in smaller aircraft, because they won't want to stop at an immediate intermediate point.

The essence of the Emirates model has always been that we don't only serve primary hubs. We serve first, second, third and, in some cases, fourth-level airports. Then you can maximize the opportunity of city-pair combinations. I use the example of say from Seattle to Dar es Salaam; for instance, right now to go Seattle Dar es Salaam on a non-stop B787 or A350 a full load of passengers is unlikely to happen, but we can get you from Seattle to Dae es Salaam with an hour and a half connection here in Dubai... and I can feed it with 20 other flights, which makes the Dar es Salaam sector look very profitable for us. That's how it works.

When will Emirates receive the A350?

The A350 is scheduled for 2023. We're still more aligned to the A350-900, as we're interested in getting that in sooner rather than later. However, we have to map our fleet planning accordingly.

Do you think Emirates will go supersonic one day?

With technology as it is today? to scale supersonic transport to match the economics and the environmental footprint of some of the modern-day twins? I would say probably not in my lifetime.

Could we go? We can go supersonic now. We've had great advances in the area of dynamics, understanding the materials, understanding composites, the metallurgical solutions, propulsion has advanced etc. Whether or not that's enough to scale to where we need to be, certainly with regard to getting an aircraft that is going to match the economics and the environmental requirements of something like the aircraft I've mentioned, I'm not sure about that, I'm not sure where they are yet.

I'd like to see aircraft flight at Mach 0.9 economically, that would require changing to the wing aerodynamics of course; I'd also like to see us being able to get more utilization out of the assets, because they are so expensive.

Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airline

So if you can take an aircraft from something like Mach 0.8 to Mach 0.9 then It makes a measurable difference on the utilization, particularly over the long distances. You can actually get the same utilization from one and a half aircraft instead of two, that is quite significant when you've got a fleet of our size.

So if we could get the aircraft to fly faster, more efficiently, be more environmentally friendly, that's where I think we should be going rather than over cooking the supersonic argument at this stage.

Do you know when you're going to retire?

I would like to see this pandemic through, to guide things through this particularly difficult time. It is the most difficult time in the airline's history. Don't get me wrong, It doesn't require me to stay; there are plenty of people in the business who can and will do the right thing. Also, I don't plan to be working for another 10 or 15 years, but I would definitely like to see us through the pandemic.