Emirates Enjoy an Unfair Advantage?
Urban legend tries to explain away this
airline's great service and strong profitability
Emirates is a
relatively new airline, with a very new fleet of planes, and
with the largest fleet of A380 super-jumbos on order of any
Emirates Airlines was founded
in October 1985. Little more than twenty years later, it
has grown from a small regional carrier to one of the world's
powerhouse airlines, with an annual growth rate never less than
20%, and annual profits every year after its third year of
Its most recent financial year,
ended 31 March 2008, was no exception. Profits were up 29%
to US$942 million, and the airline now operates a fleet of 113
planes, flying to over 100 destinations in over 62 countries all
around the world.
It has a staggering 244
additional planes currently on order (including 55 A380
super-jumbos), and has placed the largest single order for
It is also relevant to note
that it has a deserved reputation as being a very high quality
airline (see my
review of Emirates' Business Class).
Their record of growth is
astonishing, all the more so as the airline is based in a tiny
little country, Dubai, far from traditional population centers
and high profit/high density airline routes. And so, with
perhaps more than a slight taste of sour grapes, some people
have suggested that in some way Emirates is 'cheating' and has
unfair advantages over its less successful competitors.
Is there any truth in this?
The Urban Legends that Attack
It surprises me that an
airline as generally excellent as Emirates has an active coterie
of detractors out there; every time I write something positive
about the airline, I can be sure to get several hostile emails
as a result. Mind you, it is so rare for me to write something
positive about an airline, perhaps if I were to write something
positive about any other carrier, that too would attract
But the particularly
surprising thing about Emirates are the urban legends associated
with it - both that, because it is a carrier based in the Middle
East, it somehow gets discounts on its jet fuel purchases,
and/or because it is owned by the Dubai Government, it has
access to unlimited capital and never needs to borrow money and
therefore has no interest expense. Both these two urban legends
conclude with the statement 'and that's why they can afford to
be so good, and that's why they're so profitable'.
Here's the most recent
example (which is sadly typical, and which served to inspire
this article), received from a reader who is best left as
anonymous other than to note he describes himself as a retired
UA employee (formatting and spelling left unchanged) :
whom it may concern:
the most part do enjoy your news letter, even the constant
rambling & whining can be intertaining.
i do feel that i must point out something that you may have
you make mention of united emirates as
being such a great airline, with full amenities, RIGHT! you
seem to have overlooked one simple theing though... united
emirates is an OIL AIRLINE!!! oil comes from saudi arabia
and they pay no more than .42 cents per gallon(most cases)
.12 cents per gallon for their fuel...
so, it cost them more to refuel for their return flights,
and can redilly afford it!!!! so please try and think of
that when you
are building up their air line...
I've asked the writer (as I
do most others) to provide some proof for their allegation.
None is ever forthcoming.
I also asked Emirates'
always affable Nigel Page, who heads up the Emirates operation
in the Americas region, to comment on both these points.
Jet Fuel Costs
As regards jet fuel, he says
Although some competitors like to insinuate that our fuel
prices are unfairly lower than theirs, we get no breaks at
all in fuel prices, either in Dubai or anywhere else in the
world, other than those that we (and other airlines) manage
to secure through tough negotiating and clever sourcing. We
actually have a full time fuel buyer, based in Texas, and he
saved us US$242 million in our last financial year. Any
other airline can (and often does) do the same things we do
to control their fuel costs.
Indeed, Nigel's colleague
Will Löfberg, Emirates' Manager of Public Affairs, based in
Emirates purchases its fuel on the open market and in Dubai
our suppliers are: Air BP, Shell, Chevron, Exxon, ENOC - all
of whom charge us at commercial rates.
Sources of Capital
As regards the capital
claim, Nigel answers
do not have unlimited capital, and neither do not pay for
our aircraft with cash on delivery. We secure finance
through the banks and bond markets, just like any other
airline. We absolutely have to pay interest on our
loans at fair market rates.
also have lease expenses because some of our fleet are on
leases. Just ask ILFC (the world's largest aircraft
leasing company - we are big customers of theirs).
To confirm Nigel's comments,
I went and looked at their most recent annual report for the
year ended 31 March 2008 (prepared to international accounting
standards and audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers). Page 2
this section showed their fuel cost to be 30.6% of their
income, and the same section of the report showed they spend
10.6% of their income on plane leases.
Page 2 of
this section of their report showed an interest cost of
AED734 million for the year, confirming they do borrow money,
and their balance sheet (page 3 of the same section) showed
total shareholder capital of only AED801 million, although
boosted by massive retained earnings of AED15.1 billion, and
augmented by borrowings of AED7.6 billion, with interest payable
at rates of 5.13% on term loans and 5.3% on bonds.
The current (early June 08)
exchange rate between the Dirham (AED) and the US Dollar is 3.67
Dirhams to the dollar, so, if you wish to, divide the numbers
above by 3.67 to see them in US dollars.
In terms of fuel, a 30.6%
fuel cost is reasonably in line with other airlines and higher
than some - for example, in its six months reported through 31
Dec 2007, Qantas (another airline that primarily operates long
haul services, similar to Emirates, but fully owned by public
investors rather than by any government) reported a fuel cost of
only 21% (see page 8 of the
Qantas report). And whereas Emirates had a net cost of
finance (it paid more in interest than it received) Qantas had a
net surplus (it received more in interest than it paid).
Emirates' Capital is Expensive,
One last thing. Emirates
pays its owner rich dividends. With AED801 million invested into
the airline, the government received an AED1 billion dividend
from the last year's profit, and an AED400 million dividend the
year before. So no-one can describe the equity investment
in Emirates as being cheap capital for the airline. They
would be much more profitable with less government ownership and
more money borrowed.
The Real Secret of Emirates'
I'll let Nigel explain the
Emirates phenomenon in his own words :
airline is perfect, but having just completed forty years in
the airline business I can tell that I have never worked
with such an enthusiastic and dedicated management and
The fact that we have well over one hundred nationalities,
and come from a variety of airline backgrounds, I believe
give us considerable strength. Do we occasionally get it
wrong? Of course we do! We are a service industry, and human
beings occasionally make mistakes. The important thing is to
try and recover the situation well when things go wrong. We
have a very high repeat level of customers and we try to
give high standards of service.
As best I can tell, there's
absolutely nothing in the Emirates report to suggest any unfair
advantages, or anything significantly different from what one
would expect of an airline of its type.
It is plain that Emirates
competes on a close to level playing field with the other
airlines around the world, and it is further plain that the
reason for Emirates' success is simply what it seems to be -
they provide a high quality product that their customers
appreciate and return wanting more of. There's no magic or
mystery to this, which makes it all the more puzzling why other
airlines look the other way and show no interest in trying to
copy Emirates' success, preferring instead to copy the mistakes
of their fellow dinosaurs, and with similar negative results.
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13 Jun 2008, last update
19 Dec 2013
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