Saturday, July 5, 2014

The New Silk Road

Vanity Fair - "The New Jet Age"

"The sudden ascendancy of the Gulf airlines and their hub airports is partially a result of geological fortune but mainly due to good planning by the Emirati leaders. Emirates was founded in 1985 after Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum hired a British Airways executive, Sir Maurice Flanagan, gave him $10 million, and told him to build an airline. (Many start-up aviation firms begin by leasing most of their fleet.) Aware that Dubai’s oil reserves would run out in the early 21st century, Sheikh Mohammed had decided to transform his country from a petro-dependent mini-state to a diverse business powerhouse with tourism and aviation at its center.

Today the airline has some 218 aircraft, with another 374 on order. What Flanagan and Clark, another exile from the British aviation industry, have created is an airline that links the emerging countries in Asia and Africa to Europe and the Americas. As Clark points out, the U.A.E. is within eight hours’ flying time for half the world’s population. And just as Emirates was connecting Africa and the East to the rest of the world, so Emirates was joined by Qatar Airways in 1997 and then by Etihad in 2003 in its bid to shuttle this new generation of business and leisure travelers around the globe."


"In January 2013, Dubai International opened Concourse A—aviation’s first facility dedicated entirely to Airbus A380 superjumbos. Located in Terminal 3, it is a magnificent building. Huge first- and business-class lounges connect directly to the A380 upper decks; economy-class passengers board from the lower level. The new concourse has already increased Dubai’s traffic to 75 million passengers a year, moving it past London’s Heathrow as the world’s busiest international airport. By 2018 that number is expected to pass 90 million, overtaking vast domestic hubs such as Atlanta and Beijing.

And yet this is just the beginning. A few miles across the tiny emirate another enormous, five-runway airport is under construction. For now, Dubai World Central serves partly as a cargo airport. But late in the next decade Emirates airline plans to transfer its operations there. The result: by 2025 more than 220 million travelers will be passing through the city’s airports annually. For Dubai, world domination is literally on the horizon."


"On both tiers the passengers are greeted by a phalanx of attractive young air hostesses recruited from all over the world. (Though Emirates employs male stewards, none is in evidence today.) The cabin announcements reveal that the crew on this flight can speak English, French, German, Arabic, Spanish, Swahili, Mandarin, Italian, and Xhosa."


" At the back of the upper-deck cabin, directly behind business class, is the pièce de résistance: a fully operative stand-up bar that has been the social hub on every Emirates A380 flight I have taken. To make space for this in-flight lounge, Emirates president Tim Clark says, he has had to sacrifice six premium seats, but declares, “It’s the most popular thing we’ve ever done. They have a real party down there.” On this flight a group of Italian contractors join two British couples around the bar soon after takeoff. And they’re all still there six hours later as the plane starts its descent. It is, indeed, some party.

Even the humble masses in coach are able to partake of the A380’s in-flight video-and-audio system, which offers more than 1,500 channels featuring movies, television shows, news, games, and music from around the world, all delivered through high-end, 13-inch seatback monitors.

For anyone who has endured the post-deregulation austerity of U.S. airlines over the past few decades—uncomfortable, overcrowded, bare-bones bus journeys in the sky—the experience of flying on Emirates, Etihad, or Qatar comes close to recapturing the joy of jet travel from Pan Am’s heyday. There is a sense of fun on board, and that has come down from the top. Tim Clark says he wants to bring a bit of glamour back into flying."

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