The man who helped Emirates go from one aircraft to global aviation player


When Emirates Airline was launched three decades ago with a leased aircraft, Maurice Flanagan could hardly have imagined the company would become one of the world’s largest and most popular carriers.

Sir Maurice Flanagan, as he became, was perhaps the key expatriate involved in growing the Dubai airline into a global behemoth with more than 230 aircraft, including the world’s largest fleet of Airbus A380 superjumbos.

His recent death in London aged 86 came two years after he stepped down as Emirates’ executive vice-chairman. He was a lively and forthright advocate for the company who retained a high media profile into his 80s.

The Dubai that Flanagan moved to in 1978 to run dnata, on a two-year secondment that became permanent, was a very different place to the present-day city.

But the emirate had huge ambitions, and Flanagan played a central role in creating an airline that, as the city grew, turned Dubai into one of the world’s aviation hubs.

Gulf Air had flown to Dubai since the 1970s but its decision the following decade to cut services provided a spur for Dubai to set up its own airline. Flanagan headed the small team charged with launching Emirates with US$10 million and a requirement to be profitable.

Operations began when the company’s leased airliner took off from Karachi in 1985, and within a year more than a quarter of a million passengers had travelled.

Over the coming decades, with the down-to-earth Flanagan as managing director of the airline and then of Emirates Group, growth was spectacular. Emirates is now among the world’s top 10 airlines by revenue, one of the largest five in terms of passenger kilometres flown and top three in terms of freight kilometres.

The company announced it had made Dh4.6 billion in the year to the end of March, its 27th consecutive annual profit.

Flanagan occasionally imposed his whims on the company, reportedly redeploying staff with the term “marketing” in the title as he disliked the term, and ordering that – to show solidarity with operational staff – executives keep flying to Kuwait even as the security situation deteriorated ahead of the first Gulf war.

He spearheaded the company’s huge investments in sports sponsorship, although instead of linking up with the Manchester United he supported, Emirates first teamed up with Chelsea before settling on Arsenal.

Flanagan was robust in refuting the idea that Emirates enjoyed unfair government assistance, saying in an interview such suggestions were “rubbish”.

“We are just a better-run airline,” he said.

Born in Lancashire, in north-west England, in 1928, he attended Liverpool University and began his aviation career as a Royal Air Force navigator. Two years later, in 1953, and after a knee injury had put paid to his hopes of becoming a professional footballer, he joined the British Overseas Airways Corporation, a state-owned airline, and held a number of overseas posts in what was a very different era for aviation.

He took up a senior position as a route planner in London in 1965 and continued with the carrier when a 1974 merger led to the birth of British Airways.

Leo Fewtrell, a UAE-based travel industry executive who knew Flanagan from their BOAC days, said: “He was largely responsible for helping make Emirates the world-beating company it is today. A terrific businessman but, more importantly, a good family man and respected by all.”

Flanagan is survived by his wife, Audrey, his daughters, Siobhan and Claire, and his son, Julian.

Maurice Flanagan: born Leigh, Lancashire, 17 October, 1928; died London, 7 May, 2015.