The founder of Emirates Airline, Sir Maurice Flanagan, died of natural causes on 7 May. He passed away in his London home aged 86.

Born in England in 1928, Flanagan served as a navigator in the Royal Air Force from 1951-52, before joining British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) as a graduate trainee. After climbing the ranks through a series of overseas postings, he returned to the UK in 1974 to join the senior management of British Airways, as BOAC had become.

Four years later, Flanagan was lured to Dubai to run Dnata, the emirate’s airport operator and travel agent. In 1984, he was asked to start an airline.

Flanagan was fond of telling the story of how Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum – then defence minister and head of Dubai Airport’s management committee, and now ruler of Dubai and vice-president of the UAE – asked him how much it would cost to establish an airline. Flanagan said $10m. Sheikh Mohammed gave him the funding with strict instructions: “Don’t come back for more.”

Guaranteed growth

Speaking to MEED at Dubai’s Capital Club in January, after one of his last public appearances, Flanagan said he always had confidence in the airline and its chairman, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, with whom he had worked since the birth of Emirates.

“I knew [Emirates] was going to grow,” he told MEED. “In the first 10 years, it grew tenfold. Of course, that rate of growth could not continue. It has all these things going for it, particularly the quality of the chairman, Sheikh Ahmed. He’s very much hands-on; the staff are devoted to him and everyone works hard, not just for the airline but for Sheikh Ahmed.”

In a statement after Flanagan’s death, Sheikh Ahmed described him as “generous with his time, forthright in his views, and a person who gave 110 per cent to everything he did”.

Flanagan, along with other Emirates executives, had frequently rebuffed allegations that the airline ever benefited from subsidised fuel and protectionism. He told MEED this was not the case, “because that’s the Dubai rules of the game”.

“You’ve got to be open to competition, you’ve got to be efficient, and the imperative is that [the airline] has got to make money, which is what Sheikh Mohammed demanded right from the start,” he said. “And who’s going to pay the subsidy? Why should we drain our other organisations for the company’s resources? Emirates has got to stand on its own two feet, and that’s the way it should be.”

Emirates’ first two aircraft were rented from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). “We did a deal with PIA for those aircraft, whereby we paid the rent of the aircraft six months in arrears,” said Flanagan. “So the money from sales came rolling in before the big money for the rest of the aircraft went out. We made money in the first year.”

In an industry notorious for being a money pit, the airline Flanagan founded has made money every year apart from its second. In the 30 years since its inaugural flight, EK600, took off from Dubai bound for Karachi, the carrier has grown from two aircraft to more than 230, and from serving three destinations on the Indian subcontinent to carrying almost 50 million customers from the world’s busiest international passenger hub to more than 140 airports around the globe.

One of the draws that brings repeat custom back to the world’s largest international airline is the comforts it has introduced – from seat-back video for all travellers to luxuries such as private suites in first class, on-board showers and an in-flight bar.

There is no reason for Emirates to stop improving its services, said Flanagan, and not just so it can stay ahead of regional rivals Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. “It’s good and it should [continue],” he said. “Emirates… doesn’t think in terms of competition with anybody. It has its own standards and it adheres to those. They seem to have worked.”

Massive profit

Its founder died on the day Emirates announced its 2014/15 financial results, and its second-highest profit of $1.5bn. Dnata, one of now more than 80 subsidiaries of the group, made a profit of $247m, the highest in its 56 years of operation. In 2013, the aviation industry, including Emirates and Dubai Airports, contributed $26.7bn to the emirate’s economy. This is estimated to be equivalent to 27 per cent of Dubai’s GDP. The sector provided 21 per cent of the emirate’s total employment.

Flanagan was made managing director when Emirates’ inaugural flight took off in October 1985. In 1990, he was appointed group managing director for the Emirates Group. In July 2003, Flanagan became vice-chairman and group president, then executive vice-chairman in 2006, a position he held until his retirement in 2013. In his retirement, he told MEED he was enjoying doing “not very much”.

“I watch cricket on television; I keep up my Arabic,” he said. “When I first came [to Dubai] I had to sign documents in Arabic and I thought I’d better know the sporting terms and what the document says before I sign it. So I started learning Arabic and I became quite good at it.”

Flanagan gave his farewell speech to Emirates staff in the language of the country he put on the map.