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OBITUARY: Maurice Flanagan, the expat who helped Emirates take over the world

Maurice Flanagan, who has died aged 86, caught the Dubai bug when he arrived on a two-year secondment to run the city’s airport and travel operator Dnata in the late-1970s. “Everything looked so promising that I decided to stay,” he recalled two decades later. By taking up the royal family’s invitation in 1985 to launch an upstart state-owned airline called Emirates, the expat Englishman helped change the shape of aviation and ensured his place in the industry’s history.

He retired from the Emirates Group in 2013, as executive vice-chairman, after 35 years of helping to take the carrier from two rented aircraft to one of the biggest widebody fleets in the world. Although he stepped back from an active role in the business in his late 70s, he was still very much a face of the brand, defending Emirates in an interview with Airline Business in 2005 from accusations of unfair subsidies (back then, not from the Americans, but the airline’s now-partner Qantas).

A former Royal Air Force officer, Flanagan was already an industry veteran when he came to Dubai, having worked in the UK and abroad for British Airways predecessor BOAC. At that time, the Al Maktoums were busy trying to turn Dubai from a dusty trading port into a thriving metropolis of tourism and commerce by opening the economy with free trade deals and an open door to workers from all over the world– attracting tens thousands of waiters, construction workers and taxi drivers as well as seasoned professionals like Flanagan.

Air links were crucial to the strategy to create a global hub, and the government first tempted Gulf Air – then partly-owned by Dubai’s richer neighbour Abu Dhabi – to begin services during the 1970s. The city’s tiny airport was expanded as passenger numbers soared to two million in 1978. However, Gulf Air’s decision to cut its Dubai services in the mid-1980s, persuaded the Al Maktoums to launch their own airline with two aircraft, a leased Boeing 737-300 and an Airbus A310, and $10 million working capital. With Gulf Air dominant in the region, it was an incredibly audacious move.

With one or two blips, the first decade went swimmingly, with the airline averaging a 30% increase in passengers each year. When that began to settle down to around 12%, there were jokes that the recession had begun, Flanagan recalled. One of the boldest moves the Al Maktoums made was to allow all foreign carriers unfettered access to the airport. The open skies policy meant Flanagan and his team had to be extra sharp to compete, but it contributed to the emergence of Dubai as a crossroads of the world.

As the airline became more successful, increasingly adding services to Europe and North America from the turn of the century, Flanagan spent much of his time in interviews explaining the phenomenon that was Emirates and its relationship with the wider statelet. Although the carrier enjoyed the support of the royal family and contributed as well as benefited from the growth of Dubai, it was consistently profitable and contributed rather than took funds from the state.

“The only advantage we have is that we established an airline on a greenfield site. We are not lumbered by baggage,” he said in 2005. Attacks from rival airlines he attributed, quite simply, to “jealousy”. By the time Flanagan took a back-seat role as executive vice-chairman in 2006, Emirates had become one of the biggest brands in aviation and the largest customer for the Airbus A380, with 90 of the superjumbos on order.

Flanagan, who was born in 1928 in Leigh Lancashire, and had a degree in history and French from Liverpool University, died of natural causes at his home in London. The man he launched Emirates with, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman and chief executive of Emirates Airline and Emirates Group, said in a statement:“Maurice was a man of great character, and a legend in the aviation industry.”

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