As president of Emirates airline, one of the UAE’s flag carriers, Tim Clark is at the centre of world aviation. He talks to us about the politics of flying, artificial intelligence and why passports should be a thing of the past.
Tim Clark is a self-professed aeroplane geek. The Emirates executive, who has been the airline’s president since 2003, might be in his eighth decade but his affection for what he dubs “the buzz” of flying remains undiminished. Luckily, his office on the top floor of the Emirates Group’s HQ next to Dubai International Airport, gives him a daily fix. With views over the airfield below, there’s a constant stream of planes – many flying Emirates colours – taxiing back and forth from runway to gate. “It’s every nerd’s dream,” he says, leaning back in an armchair, dressed in a suit and pink tie. “I have probably the best view of any president’s office in the airline world today.”
When Emirates airline was founded in 1985, Clark joined the planning department after spells at British Caledonian and Gulf Air. Since then, the carrier has gone from a plucky start-up to one of the world’s largest airlines. Today it flies to more than 140 destinations, having recently added Montréal to the mix. And despite the severe dip of the pandemic, which hit the whole industry, Emirates has bounced back. In May it reported its most successful figures to date, with profits for the 2022-2023 financial year of aed10.9bn (€2.8bn).
Trying to pinpoint crucial chapters in Emirates’ success story is not easy; Clark calls it “a complex series of questions with a complex series of answers”. He has always maintained that the airline shook up an outdated model in which destinations were determined based on a postwar, old-world order. In stepped Emirates, as what Clark calls “a disrupter to the traditional approach”. It linked multiple points of the map in a more streamlined fashion, drawing on the Gulf’s strategic location as a hub between Europe and Asia.
Emirates has also always had something of a “go it alone” attitude. While it has forged code-sharing partnerships with the like of Qantas, it has avoided clubbing together with others in the Star Alliances of the world. “We do not allow ourselves to be sidetracked into other issues, such as getting involved in partnerships,” says Clark, who says that the focus has been on building an airline from the ground up rather than getting distracted by secondary services.
“I have probably the best view of any president’s office in the airline world today”
A fierce advocate of liberalising the airways through so-called “open skies” agreements, Clark refutes claims that Emirates has received subsidies from its wealthy government owners. “We are not subsidised by the government; the government is hugely supportive of what we do,” he says. “They don’t give us any money at all, apart from when we were in dire straits during the coronavirus pandemic when they stepped up immediately. But they rely on us to get the job done.”
Others have complained that the way that the uae is set up has given Emirates an unfair advantage, such as the fact that the airline’s employees are not unionised (Clark says that the company offers extremely generous packages) or that Dubai Airport doesn’t have a curfew, essentially operating 24/7. When it comes to the latter, Clark is bullish. “That’s the way it is,” he says. “We have a government that is hugely involved in what we do in the sense that they understand the criticality of aerospace. They want to nurture it and what’s wrong with that?”
As an airline executive, Clark must occasionally answer questions on hot-button issues. Described in the past as having “a friendly outspokenness”, he agrees with the depiction, saying that at times he might have been “a little bit vocal on certain issues”, even if he does try his best to veer away from anything controversial, such as politics. monocle takes this as a cue to ask about Emirates’ decision to keep flying to Russia. “We do as we are bid by the state,” he says, making it clear that decisions like these rest with the government.
Not so long ago it looked unfathomable that a conversation like this with Clark could happen at all. Back in 2019, he announced to the world that he was retiring as part of an acceptance that, as he puts it, “nothing lasts for ever”. That decision to bring the curtain down on a Emirates career lasting more than 30 years was reversed as the pandemic hit. “You’re right,” says the 73-year-old grinning. “I’m now pushing four years over when I said I was going to go. But I’m pleased that I stayed.” For now, he won’t be pushed on an exit date as he continues to pilot the airline’s impressive post-pandemic recovery. And the focus still seems to be on ensuring that Emirates is never on autopilot and continues to disrupt the market.
In the past, that disruption was arguably done through traditional customer service: its colossal double-decker Airbus A380 planes, with their top floors dedicated to premium classes and staff welcoming back passengers by name. Small gestures such as metal cutlery being extended to economy, meanwhile, suggested that this was an airline that didn’t skimp on costs. Clark says it has all been part of the airline continuing to bring “class, style and panache to the various cabin classes that we offer”.
Technology plays a central part in Emirates’ bid to continue to differentiate itself. “We are at the forefront of embracing just about everything that comes along,” says Clark. And that ranges from blockchain and the metaverse to the current brave new world: artificial intelligence (AI). While Clark seems cynical about its ability to be customer-facing, he thinks that the technology offers plenty of opportunities. “We need to embrace AI to help us in the way that we go about executing our products: engineering, flight operations, finance, HR,” he says. “The B2C side is far more complicated.”
Not that it’s stopping the people on the eighth floor from pushing the boundaries of where Emirates’ tech-enabled customer service might go. The Innovation Majlis platform, launched in July, is working on prototypes that could one day be a mainstay of the Emirates experience; Clark says that it’s vital to have a group of people “who are testing, innovating and, hopefully, shocking and stunning us”. During our visit, monocle gets to try out a virtual-reality headset complete with a haptic glove that could be used for crew training and would prove much less expensive than a life-size aeroplane simulator. (Your correspondent managed to spill a coffee and drop a drill, meaning that his Emirates job prospects look slim.) Elsewhere, there is a 3d printer trialling the manufacture of replacement metal parts for airport buggy transport, as well as an impressive 3d customer service avatar powered by Hypervsn.
“We need to embrace AI to help us in the way that we go about executing our products”
Back on the executive floor, Clark is sketching out future plans, including painless air travel, easy check-in and virtually non-existent physical security, thanks to biometrics. “Why do you need a passport these days?” he asks. “It’s a rather anachronistic piece of paper and a book.” But our time is coming to an end, even if we could talk for another hour about the future of travel, the difficulty of scaling the provision of sustainable aviation fuel, and Saudi Arabia’s cash-rich Riyadh Air taking off in the region.
An eloquent and often amusing interlocutor, Clark relaxes when monocle’s audio recorder is switched off. It’s then, in that less-guarded moment, that he offers a glimpse of the management style that has kept Emirates at the top of its game and sees him behind his desk at 06.30 every morning. “I’m always on,” he says, adding that he expects to be able to contact his employees whenever he needs them, given the multiple issues across multiple time zones that constantly need resolving. “This is a change of life,” he says, comparing working for the company to being an on-call doctor. It may well be the best explanation yet for Emirates’ success.
Emirates airline in numbers
Destinations served: 144
Countries and territories served: 76
Passenger planes in fleet: 249
Airbus a380-800s in fleet: 116
Freight craft in fleet: 11
Passengers served (2022-2023): 43.6 million