Emirates was the center of attention at last week's Dubai air show. The Persian Gulf carrier became the launch customer for Boeing's 777X, with orders for 150 jets. Then it placed an order for 50 Airbus A380s, firming up a shaky orderbook for that aircraft. Emirates Airline President Tim Clark sat down at the show with Aviation Week editors to discuss the orders and his carrier's outsizedinfluence on new aircraft designs and the improvements he would like to see on the A380.

AW&ST: You would like Airbus to reengine the A380. How would that work?

Clark: Engine technology is going through major changes. In the fullness of time, the A380 needs to get the benefit of what is going on with midsize fans. The Leap is going to give us 18% [better fuel burn], so they say. To leave the A380 in a position where it isn't [getting more efficient] doesn't make sense. What I've said to Airbus is the A380 is a good airplane today, makes money and is popular. And the alliance engines are, by and large, OK. But the new generation of widebodies is changing the game. A lot has changed since the A380 came to market. If they crossed over some of the stuff we're seeing on the new generation of jets onto the A380, it would be a very much-improved airplane.

What time frame are you talking about? 2020?

Of course, we'd like to see it sooner. I don't think it would be difficult for propulsion manufacturers—Rolls-Royce and General Electric—to do a scale-down of what's going to come out of the new jets at the back of this decade. That cannot be lost on them. If you can do it with the A320 or [Boeing] 737, you can to it to the A380. It could be a smaller version of the [GE] 9X, or a smaller version of the [Rolls-Royce] Trent that was proposed, but there has to be a 10% reduction in [specific fuel consumption] straight away in the next generation.

Are A380 unit costs higher than the Boeing 777ER's?

They are surprisingly about the same. So if we can get improvements coming with the new 777[X] onto the A380, that is of great interest to us.

Have you talked with Airbus about a stretched version of the A380?

We're always talking about the stretch; they always say “no.”

But Emirates has some bargaining power.

As you heard [at the Dubai air show], they're looking at increasing the number of seats. The irony is that when we got the airplane in the early days, we specified the [A380-]900 at 11 [seats] abreast—huge. They thought we were bonkers, of course, like most people do. Floor loading wouldn't take 11 abreast, and a stretch wasn't in the cards. Had we had our way, we would have had 900 seats in 2008.

What other changes in the A380 would you like to see?

We've got to take weight out of her. The aircraft came in heavy. They've had a weight-reduction program, which has seen about 2.5 tons come out since first delivery. There's not a lot more they can really do. I'd like to get 2-3 kg [4.4-6.6 lb.] out of each economy seat. With all the work in composite technology, you must be able to get a seat that can deal with 16g forces and stay intact, and introduce titanium into various aluminum alloys to strengthen whatever structure you've got left. If I can get a seat at 12 kg, with 13-in. screens, you [can fit] 450 [passengers] on the main deck. That goes straight to the bottom line.

What do you think of Airbus's campaign that seats on its jets will have a minimum width of 18 in.?

It offsided me a little bit. The criticality of an 18-in. seat to the lower percentiles of the Asian market is not so important. In American and European markets, 18 in. is far too small. You need 36 in., truth be told. So, in the end, the important thing for me is to optimize comfort levels. You could have an 18-in. seat that is the most uncomfortable ever.

Emirates accounts for half of the A380 orderbook. How concerned are you about your ability to find buyers when you begin to retire aircraft?

Operating leases will go away after 12 years and they'll leave the fleet. If we don't have buyers for our wholly owned airplanes, we'll run them for another three years. Our hope is that in the next couple of years, as the global economy finally picks up and the risk-averse aviation community recognizes the qualities of this plane, we'll see [more buyers]. We're 50% [of the orders] because we believe in the scale of the airplane.

What's your response to reports that Emirates and Qatar joined forces to squeeze a better deal out of Boeing on your 777X orders?

We've been working on this program with Boeing for four years. What we signed for was a morph of a major design input that Emirates put into the program. [Qatar Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker] knew we were doing that, and he loves his [777]ERs. He said, “If what you are doing for Emirates is as good as what you guys did for the ER, Qatar Airways will buy whatever spec you come up with,” and he put it in writing to Boeing. What you saw was Akbar signing up to the spec of the airplane that we almost did on his behalf. Paradox? Maybe. Naturally, it was of great interest to Boeing to have another 50 [orders]. It gave them immense confidence in the ability to launch the 777X. We were able to use Akbar's 50 to say to Boeing, “Listen, this is going to be a good airplane, and if you do it, the Gulf carriers will come behind you.' And they did.

But there is a concern that the Persian Gulf carriers' specs won't be ideal for other airlines.

Ask operators of the 777ER where that [design] came from. And how many of them are happy with it. British Airways recently bought it, and Lufthansa probably rues the day they didn't. We have had a lot of input, but we buy a lot of airplanes. We have [specified] a higher-thrust engine [for the 777X] because we want it to go further under our conditions. But that doesn't mean that [Boeing has] compromised performance capabilities for those carriers that want to do [shorter] missions. And the engine is more reliable, so the maintenance costs will be lower and the on-wing life will be higher. What I hope we have done is give everybody an airplane that can work.

Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST to watch a video of Clark discussing Airbus A380 improvements with Aviation Week editors, or go to AviationWeek.com/dubai2013