The Wind Behind The Wings: The History of the Emirates airline

Emirates airline is now the third-largest airline on the planet, and one of the world’s most recognisable airlines, but it wasn’t always this way.

The Wind Behind The Wings: The History of the Emirates airline

An in-depth account of the turbulent rise of the iconic Emirates airline

Emirates airline is now the third-largest airline on the planet and one of the world’s most recognizable airlines, but it wasn’t always this way. With its headquarters in the United Arab Emirates, this airline has gone through numerous changes, iterations, and developments to become what it is today – a formidable force in the aviation industry. Operating a fleet of 254 aircraft to over 157 destinations, Emirates has truly become one of the top airlines globally.

Starting as a small carrier operating in the Gulf, Emirates has now expanded to international flights all around the world, with passengers being big fans of Emirates’ unique brand of comfort, reliability, and luxury. Take a walk through history and find out how Emirates evolved from its humble beginnings in 1984, to where it is now.


It all started in 1984, when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the United Arab Emirates Minister of Defence at the time, started engaging in discussions with Sir Maurice Flanagan, the managing director of dnata, about the possibility of starting an airline. During this time, the previously dominant Gulf Air started to reduce its services to Dubai, and there was an apparent gap in the market starting to form. By the end of the year, the ‘Emirates’ name had been birthed, and the airline was launched, with financial support from the Dubai royal family.

Emirates’ first flight took place in 1985, when it took passengers from Dubai to Karachi, Pakistan, on a Boeing 737. During Emirates’ initial expansion years, it would be heavily reliant on Pakistan International Airlines for letting them lease aircraft and offering technical and administrative assistance. It’s hard to believe today, but, in its infancy stages, Emirates struggled to find funding due to a lack of any government subsidies from the UAE.

In 1987, another important landmark was ticked off as Emirates’ first owned aircraft, an Airbus A310-305, flew from Toulouse to Dubai. Within the first 5 years since its inception, Emirates expanded to 14 destinations, including Mumbai, Dhaka, Istanbul, and Frankfurt.


In the early 1990s, Emirates was already well on its way to being an established airline in the area, experiencing high levels of growth and turning over approximately $100 million a year, until turning over close to $500 million by the end of 1993.

Emirates proved themselves to be a leader in inflight entertainment and the customer experience, as they became the very first airline to use video systems in all seats, throughout all cabin classes, on all their flights. At the time, this was seen as a monumental leap for in-flight technology. Another milestone came that year, as the Dubai International Airport finally completed its highly-anticipated refurbishment, which meant that Emirates could move its headquarters into a brand new $2 million departure terminal. In that same year, Emirates ordered 7 Boeing 777s as a clear signal to the rest of the world that it was ready to continue its exponential growth. Despite the tragic Gulf War breaking out just years earlier, Emirates somehow continued to thrive, against all odds.

The years 1993 and 1994 saw further expansion in in-flight technology, as Emirates became the first airline to introduce telecommunications and fax services in the sky. In May of 1998, Emirates would purchase a 43.6% stake in Air Lanka (now known as SriLankan Airlines), which it would later sell for approximately $150 million in 2010. Dubai’s growth as an aviation hub continued to rise to prominence, with a new Terminal 2 opening up at Dubai International Airport in 1998, and the airport hitting the 11 million passenger mark in 1999. This was key to Emirates’ growth, as they could now service more passengers than ever before.

By the end of the decade, 28 new routes were added and Emirates were now flying to over 50 destinations globally across several continents – including Singapore, Manila, London Heathrow, Paris, Melbourne, and Nairobi.


The 2000s decade saw Emirates kick its growth into overdrive, as it placed an order for 25 Boeing 777-300s, 8 Airbus A340-500s, 3 Airbus A300-200s, and 22 double-decker A380s. It also launched its frequent flyer program, ‘Skywards’ that year. Put simply, Emirates was continuing to grow at increasingly high rates.

That is, until 2001. Between 2001 and 2002, the airline would suffer one of its most difficult years as it attempted to recover and navigate its way through the July 2001 bombing of Colombo Airport, which destroyed three of SriLankan Airlines’ aircraft and damaged three other aircraft. Soon after, the September 11 bombings took place, instilling fear and hesitancy in passengers globally, resulting in thousands of cancellations and heavily reduced bookings for the airline. As a result, the airline had to announce a recruitment freeze, and reduce its flight frequencies to some destinations. Amid all the chaos, there was a silver lining for Emirates – major airlines had halted their operations in Dubai and other UAE cities, meaning that Emirates could now acquire their market share and take advantage of what would usually be a detrimental circumstance.

In the coming years, Emirates enjoyed a steady incline until 2004, when it began to fly to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, using Airbus A340-500 aircraft. Also in 2004, Emirates signed a historic £100 million deal sponsorship deal with the iconic football team, Arsenal. Through this deal, Arsenal Stadium was renamed Emirates Stadium for 15 years, along with a shirt sponsorship deal for 8 years. The deal was renewed in 2012 and 2018 and is now one of the longest-running sponsorship deals in world sport. Over the years, other strategic partnerships include an Emirates-Qantas partnership, as well as a flydubai partnership.

In 2005, Emirates made history with a jaw-dropping order for 42 Boeing 777s, through a deal that was worth $9.7 billion. At the time, this was the largest Boeing 777 order ever made.

Emirates’ world-renowned status as a leader in passenger airline services was fully solidified in 2014, when it was named the world’s ‘Most valuable airline brand’ by Brand Finance, and the ‘World’s Best Airline’ by aviation review organization, Skytrax, in 2016.


Emirates is now enjoying the success of the world’s first fully-enclosed First Class private suites, which launched in 2017. In 2019, Emirates put in another order for 30 Boeing 787-9 aircraft, valued at USD 8.8 billion.

Between 2010 to 2019, Emirates added 54 new routes to bring its number of routes to a total of 157 destinations, including flights to Tokyo, St Petersburg, Buenos Aries, Taipei, Cebu, and Bali.

It remains to be seen how the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic will impact Emirates’ unprecedented growth rates, but if its approach to the 2001 Colombo bombing is anything to go by, then expect Emirates to stick around and continue its march towards aviation dominancy well into the future.