Feisty as ever, Emirates CEO Tim Clark said Friday his airline soon may expand in the United States by resuming double daily flights from some larger U.S. cities, or by connecting new markets to Dubai.
It’s a slight strategy shift for Emirates, as it has in the past couple of years reduced its U.S. footprint because of lagging demand. The airline was stung by the Trump Administration’s short-lived electronics ban last year, which required passengers departing Dubai and several other cities, mainly in the Middle East, to put laptops in checked luggage. Emirates was also hit earlier in 2017 by the Trump Administration’s sweeping executive order banning visitors from several Muslim-majority countries.
But today, Clark said, most Emirates customers who need a visa can get one, even though a version of the travel ban remains in effect. And with business improving, Clark said, Emirates could restore its second daily frequency to some cities that were cut to one, including Boston and Los Angeles.
In addition, he said, Emirates could expand into smaller U.S. markets. But he declined to say which U.S. cities Emirates might pursue, saying he feared U.S. airlines, and the trade groups that support them, might complain about new compeititon.
“I’ve been there,” Clark said during an interview at the Aviation Festival in London, an industry conference. “The moment I do it, suddenly everyone is rushing off to Washington to stop us from doing it.”
Emirates has generally focused on the largest U.S. cities, as well as a couple of markets — Boston, a JetBlue Airways focus city, and Seattle, a Alaska Airline hub — where its partner airlines are strong.
But by using the newest twin-engine jets, such as the Boeing 787, U.S. and foreign carriers have been increasingly flying between Europe and Asia and U.S. cities that historically could not support long-haul service. In recent years, Austin, Texas, New Orleans, Indianapolis and San Jose, California have all secured long-haul service that might been impossible with larger, older-generation aircraft.
Emirates still flies the biggest aircraft — Boeing 777s and Airbus A380s — and that makes smaller U.S. markets challenging for it. But last year, Emirates placed an order for 40 smaller and more fuel efficient Boeing 787-10 Dreamliners, and while the 787-10 have the least range of the three 787 models, Emirates has conversion rights to the Boeing 787-9 that can fly longer routes. Emirates also soon will begin taking delivery of the newest Boeing 777 that could allow it access to U.S. markets that previously were not viable.
“Imagine the 787-9 going into some of these cities or even the 777-8X,” Clark said. ‘It’s still a big airplane, but it’s not a 380. You’ve got much more [appropriate] capacity for fitting the demand for these second or third-level tier cities than you might have with a A380.”
Clark again declined to rule out future fifth-freedom flights, or routes that originate in Dubai, but stop in Europe to pick up passengers.
These flights, which Emirates can fly under the United Arab Emirates’ aviation treaty with the United States, have irritated U.S. airlines, who do not like competing with Emirates between the United States and Europe. For now, Emirates operates two — Newark to Athens, and New York JFK to Milan.
In May, representatives for the U.S. carriers said Emirates had agreed to not add more fifth-freedom routes for the foreseeable future, under a deal brokered by government officials. But Clark said Friday that while Emirates signed an agreement that requires it to be transparent about its finances, it made no promises about fifth-freedom opreations.
“In no way was there any commitment, verbally or otherwise,” said Clark, a Brit who has been in aviation roles in the Middle East for more than 40 years. “What we said was, that was never the thrust of our business model.”
Clark said Emirates continues to receive pitches from European airports desperate for a nonstop route to the United States. But he said Emirates only moves when it sees a prime opportunity.
“We don’t do it for the sake of doing it,” he said. “If there’s an opportunity there, if they’re underserved markets and if the incumbent carriers don’t take it and if we have the air service rights to do it, then why wouldn’t you do it? It’s a commercial decision.”