Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates, tells Graham Newton that the cross-fertilization of ideas from other industries will speed up innovation in the sector.

To progress aviation, the airline industry must look towards other manufacturers, or the utilities sector, or the automotive industry to get a better understanding of the science or technology needed to improve the sector.

What was it like to lead an airline through the pandemic? Are there lessons to take forward?

Back in March 2020, our understanding of the severity of the crisis was just beginning. But nobody had any idea about its longevity. We had to shut down for three months, but we thought that full operations might be possible in the final quarter of 2020. Unfortunately, the virus wasn’t contained as we hoped, and I slowly began to realize that vaccines would be needed.

At that stage there weren’t any but given the extent of the resources being brought to bear on the problem from governments and pharmaceutical companies and other stakeholders, it was clear that there would be a vaccine sooner rather than later.

We are getting to the point where the world will soon be double vaccinated, although equality of distribution is a concern, especially as governments see the vaccines as essential to lifting travel restrictions.

The situation is also being complicated by variants. And different governments are taking different approaches at different times. It has become an enormously complex issue and the end result is significant damage to the industry in the short and medium term.

But the fallout of the pandemic couldn’t have been avoided. Emirates had to lay off 30,000 staff—through no fault of the airline. It was difficult to do as we have only ever expanded. Letting good people go was very hard.

“At the moment, we are operating about 25 A380s out of a fleet of 117”

Has the crisis revealed governments’ lack of understanding of the importance of air connectivity?

The response from governments has been varied. If you look at US carriers, they received a lot of support. That’s not the case in the United Kingdom. Other governments simply don’t have the resources to support aviation. The priority has been public health. And aviation wasn’t the only industry needing cash. Look at hospitality, for example.

The main problem we have had is that every government has taken a different approach. Travel restrictions are changing by the hour. They are on a learning curve, but we all are. And if everybody keeps changing the rules it is near impossible for check-in agents and all those involved in travel to understand the requirements and plan accordingly. We hope that in 2022 when the vaccine has become ubiquitous across the world that we will see harmonization. But I suspect discrepancies will remain.

Technology can get us to the point where the information you need is right in front of you. And people shouldn’t travel where they are concerned about the right of entry. So, this will resolve itself eventually, but airlines are currently having to deal with situations that are affecting them badly and that could be avoided.

For Emirates, is it now a case of resuming your pre-COVID strategies or has your vision significantly changed?

In the short term, we had to perform major surgery on the airline. But we are recovering on the passenger side and there has always been good demand for freight. At the moment, we are operating about 25 A380s out of a fleet of 117. We are getting back to normal, and the airline will look to continue to grow. 

“Different governments are taking different approaches at different times”

Has cargo climbed up the agenda?

I don’t think anybody in the industry would dispute that it has been a life saver. Capacity has been an issue, but we have seen good yields in part because of that and air cargo has become the shining light of our business.

Going forward, I think it will remain very strong because capacity will be subdued for the next two to five  years. There is lots of interest in cargo conversions right now but that will take a little time to filter through. 

What other challenges are there in Middle East aviation?

Airspace has always been a concern, but work has been done on both the upper and lower levels. The hubs in our region have progressed enormously over the past 20 years or so and all stakeholders have been forced to improve.

We used to face inbound delays around midnight, but those have diminished rapidly because air traffic control in this part of the world have got themselves into a very good shape. It has been a work in tandem with all our partners.

What do you think the global industry will look like in five years’ time?  Is there a future for business travel, alliances, hub-and-spoke services, and low cost?

I am confident the industry will be restored largely to what it was pre-pandemic, but it may take on different guises in different segments. For example, low cost long-haul could become stronger due to new longer-range aircraft. I don’t think we will see major paradigm shifts, however. The industry will not be that dissimilar.

For a while, there may be fewer players as airlines disappear, but new players will come. And airlines will be able to fly to places they couldn’t before as slots and networks work themselves out. But these are cosmetic differences.

Looking ahead, it will be less about business models and operations and more about environmental pressures. These have gathered speed over the past year. We have to find a way to tell governments and the public about the good work we are doing.

This is a great industry that does a great job for economies but we have to be better at communicating our mitigation efforts.

30,000 The fallout of the pandemic couldn’t have been avoided. Emirates had to lay off 30,000 staff—through no fault of the airline. Letting good people go was very hard.

What would help the industry do a better job for the environment?

There’s a lot more we can do at every level.

Tree planting is good but that seems to have limited impact on public perception. And perhaps there could be a mandate for fully electric ground support equipment at airports. These efforts on the periphery never get the credit they deserve though.

The main problem is aviation fuel. Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) would be great if they can be produced at scale. But nobody has yet come up with a viable plan about how to get up to scale and so reduce the price.

As for engines, we can probably only get about another 10% out of current technology because the engine manufacturers have done a fantastic job to date.

Our flight from Dubai to Los Angeles takes off weighing 600 tonnes. It is very hard to overcome that. We would have to defy the laws of physics to make that flight completely electric, for example.

The biggest opportunity is to cross-fertilize the science. What are other manufacturers doing, or the utilities sector, or the automotive industry? We would have a better chance of understanding where we need to go if we looked beyond aviation.

What works in one industry might also work in ours. Look at composite materials. The science behind composites has been absorbed by aircraft manufacturers. But how has it been developed in the automotive industry and is there anything we can learn? If we exchange ideas, we have a much better chance of being successful.

25 “At the moment, we are operating about 25 A380s out of a fleet of 117”

10% “As for engines, we can probably only get about another 10% out of current technology because the engine manufacturers have done a fantastic job to date”

B2C “Business to consumer will become ever more important and take an increasing share of the market”

9/11 Twenty years on from 9/11, “we have to strive for seamless travel... the technology is there to make security all but invisible to the passenger”

Have customer expectations changed and, if so, is the industry in a position to meet those expectations?

I am not worried about the industry re-establishing itself in two to three years. But customers will be more discerning about travel in the future. To ensure demand, technology driven by biometrics will be needed at check-in, immigration, and boarding. And these systems must speak to each other and to government agencies.

That will be music to the ears of airports as passengers will have more dwell time and so more time to spend money. But as we get rid of antiquated processes we will see airports begin to reconfigure. Our passengers will expect seamless services because that is what they are getting in other industries.

They will expect to be connected to the Internet in the air, especially on long haul flights. And they will want to stream movies, which means we need to solve the problem of bandwidth. Airlines shouldn’t overestimate what is necessary, but they must deliver products in a meaningful manner.

The trouble is everybody is strapped for cash and taken on debt. That may inhibit innovation. But I see that as the only inhibitor. Ultimately, we must make travel a pleasure and not a concern. The technology exists to make that happen.

How important is NDC and improved distribution to a seamless travel experience?

How you reach out in the business to consumer (B2C) world is vital. Technology allows us to do it and expand our range of products exponentially. We can now talk to and understand consumers far better than we could 20 years ago. Business to business still works but B2C will become ever more important and take an increasing share of the market.

B2C helps refine our products and what we do and when. It is a window on behavioral characteristics. It gives us an immediate measure of whether we are doing something right or wrong. That is what makes it so important.

Twenty years on from 9/11 the security checkpoint is still a pain point for passengers. How do we improve the checkpoint and maintain great security?

As mentioned, we have to strive for seamless travel. So, we need to get to a situation where we can do security checks on passengers without them having to take things out of hand baggage or even stop walking.

There has to be multiple scanners for both below wing and hand baggage. Walk-through channels with multiple scanners will remove yet another touchpoint. Biometrics will take care of check-in and boarding and we have to find a similar solution for security. We will get to that point in 5-10 years as the technology is there to make security all but invisible to the passenger.