Earlier in the week the FT broke a story about a possible order by Dubai-based Emirates for up to 100 next generation Boeing 777X aircraft and reported on what such a deal would mean for the carrier, the airframe manufacturer and civil aviation in general. It’s almost impossible to touch down at a major or secondary airport today without seeing a black, white, green and red tail fin (or three) belonging to Emirates, slotted in among airlines who once dismissed the upstart from the Gulf as little more than a regional player – albeit one with bottomless pockets.
In less than 20 years, that little airline has turned into one of the best customers for both Airbus and Boeing, and one of the favourite ways for Sydney-siders to shuttle between Australia and Europe; oil engineers to get from Houston to new fields off Africa’s east coast; and Japanese Brazilians to fly between Osaka and São Paulo. Of course, all of this flying around involves passengers having to connect through Dubai (an airport that still has a long way to go before it becomes as user-friendly as Munich, Zürich or even Hong Kong), and often spending considerable time under harsh lighting while waiting for their onward flights.
For Australians accustomed to connecting through Singapore or Bangkok, the newish tie-up between Emirates and Qantas, which sees Dubai, rather than the traditional southeast Asian hubs, as the new pit-stop, has been disorienting. “I used to have the perfect travel drill for flights up to Europe,” explained a bookseller from Melbourne recently. “I’d take the Qantas flight from Sydney up to Bangkok and spend a night at the Sukhothai hotel. I’d go to a favourite restaurant in Thonglor, do some shopping, sit by the pool and then continue on to London the next day. Even if I had to go on to the book fair in Frankfurt, I was happy to have another day or two in London to poke around the shops before heading on to Germany.”
Granted, not everyone has leeway in their diary to take four days to get from Australia to Germany, but there was something about the way the gentle reader described her travel planning that made me wonder what I’d do if I was the chief executive of an airline with 100 snazzy 777Xs about to touch down on the tarmac of my global hub. For starters, would I even have a global hub?
A few years ago, I developed a fantasy airline with some colleagues. Dubbed Nippon Nordic, our airline borrowed a couple of tricks from Finnair, a few from Emirates and a couple more from All Nippon Airways. Criss-crossing the top of the world, Nippon Nordic was focused on connecting Asia, Europe and North America. We eventually turned the concept over to a Japanese illustrator (who also happens to be a Kyoto-based monk) and it became a best-selling poster.
While Nippon Nordic didn’t have a fleet of 100 long-haul aircraft, it did have one feature that I’d certainly make a key part of any future airline venture: round-the-world routes. Now, I know this concept already has the aviation economists and airline chief executives who read this page rolling their eyes, because they’re thinking about costs and fifth freedom rights (these are bi- and trilateral agreements that allow carriers to fly beyond a second point – think Air New Zealand’s flagship service to London that also touches down in Los Angeles or one of Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong to New York flights that stops in Vancouver). But everyone else reading this page is thinking that it’s time for a bit of imagination and romance when it comes to civil aviation.
In a very ideal world there would be total deregulation and my airline would offer a special set of highly tuned round-the-world services targeting business travellers. These people chart the same course around the globe every few weeks and would like nothing more than a bit of continuity between, say, London and San Francisco, then Seoul and Istanbul, and then back to London. Just as Pan Am, BOAC and Air France all had complicated route networks in the early jet age because they needed multiple refuelling stops for their 707s, a new airline would be able to win loyalty by having round-the-world services that would follow the established trade routes of modern travellers.
For the financial services set, there could be a simple London-New York-Hong Kong-Singapore service. For those in the oil and gas industry, Houston-Oslo-Dubai-Jakarta might turn into a well-travelled route. No doubt there would be point-to-point services where higher frequencies might be required, but for busy oil executives and Melbourne-based booksellers alike, a return to round-the-world services by an airline just might find a very loyal audience. And, if nothing else, it would certainly have PR value.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at ft.com/brule