2023 ATW Lifetime Achievement Recipient: Tim Clark

Credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Tim Clark developed a passion for the industry as a young boy flying around the world and was eager to pursue a career in aviation. That dream came true when he joined British Caledonian (BCAL), where he was fascinated by ramp and airport operations, and then realized the power of network and route planning.

Clark joined the founding team of Dubai-based Emirates Airline in 1985 as head of airline planning and became president in 2003. He has been instrumental in Emirates’ transformation into the global hub it is today and in reshaping how all airlines, suppliers and passengers think about long-haul travel. To this day, he keeps a copy of the original blueprint for Emirates in his desk.

A visionary leader, he has been an industry gamechanger who applied out-of-the-box thinking to network planning and coupled it with new standards of service in the air and on the ground. Clark is a firm believer in the value and enrichment that aviation brings to economies, communities, and people. He is also a strong advocate for air liberalization and supporter of industry organizations like IATA.

In Clark’s words: “We reach for the skies and then make the seemingly impossible happen through careful planning and sheer hard work.”

In these extracts from an interview with ATW, he talks about how he came into aviation, the Emirates path, and where he believes the industry is going.

What made you believe that Emirates could become the global hub carrier it has become? I didn’t believe in 1985 that we would be at the kind of size we are today. What I did know was that the same concerns I had when I was in BCAL, I tracked across and I could see the way the legacy carriers operated in the international operation, primarily driven by the post-war traffic patterns. For me, looking around at the time as the sort of planner of the business, it didn’t take long for me to realize that there was a huge opportunity simply because those legacy carriers, as they were known, were not moving at pace. We took advantage of that. It was also a question of realizing the geo-centricity of Dubai at the time, which was then a city with 600,000 people. It was a bold move to suggest that we would ever create a super hub here. It struck me then, and I know we did the right thing, that we were so plumb central to the land masses and the population masses of the eastern hemisphere, being eight hours from Glasgow and eight hours from Denpasar or Jakarta, and the huge amount of business that was incipient but not then active. It wasn’t until 1995 when the world went into the digital world, the digital era, the age of information, that this incipient demand activated to the level that we get today.

You now have a partnership with United Airlines. How is that working? We came to this deal last year, which is the beginning of something I hope will be very good in the future. I’m sure [United CEO] Scott Kirby shared the view that together we could bring value to the consumers, open up the networks with products that were affordable at a time when they needed them, and post-COVID that was a good thing to have done. It’s early days, but we’re hoping the take up will be very good. I think we have the makings of something good here. I use the example of what we did with Qantas and Alan Joyce. I think this is what attracted the eye of United because we have been so successful with that partnership, which has driven business for Qantas. It has allowed them to rethink the deployment of their assets and we are bringing them value.

You’ve always been an advocate for air liberalization. Do you feel that this is still valued by politicians today? To contextualize that post-COVID, and more recently, of course, with the war in Ukraine, there has been a certain degree of inward looking, perhaps not just in aviation; there are politics everywhere else. The pandemic was so traumatic for what it did to the global economy. Instinctively, people will withdraw, protect and hope that they can start again. I don’t think that’s a long-term thing, but I think there is a certain degree of “let’s slow it down and see what happens next” before we fully embrace what perhaps we’d signed up to before. My own view, this is a small period of time where this will go on until we go back into it. A lot will change if this war stops, but today, we are seeing sort of geopolitical repositioning.

What are the biggest lessons that need to be learned from the pandemic crisis? Don’t overthink. We have been through this before; we’ve had wars in this part of the world. We’ve had many, many traumas that have hit us. The important thing is we will get through this. It’s a mindset.

How do you see air travel evolving and changing in the future? I think demand is going to continue to grow because we are past the point where people will not travel because of budgets, so that there is a genuine interest to go and explore, investigate, trade. That’s never going to change. If you then pick up the growth of international demand for air travel prior to the pandemic, let’s say it was between 4% and 6%, and extrapolate that to where we are now, which is four years on, and we’re 25% up. That’s an extra 1 billion people theoretically who would’ve come to the market had there been no pandemic. How are we going to accommodate all of those? A lot of airlines are risk averse; a lot of airlines are out of business. The supply calculus has changed quite significantly. A lot more capacity has got to come back into the markets, wherever they may be. The costs of the aircraft and propulsion have risen significantly because of inflation. Interest rates have risen significantly. Given all the factors I’ve spoken about, it is clear that with our seat factors and the industry seat factors as high as they are, even with the airfares being the highest I have ever known in my career, the demand continues to grow.

What are your personal plans for the future? You know, I actually declared my retirement in September 2019, then the world fell apart and I couldn’t really leave it. I couldn’t reconcile that with my conscience. I agreed with everybody that I would stay until I managed to get the business turned round. That’s the least I could do. We’re well ahead of that now and what I’m trying to do now is map the future as best I can so that the team coming behind me will be able to pick this one up and hopefully pursue that line. Dubai, of course, is one of the major ingredients of our success. The government, and for those who have been to Dubai, it is absolutely dumbfounding what you will see here and what they’ve done in such a short space of time. The airline has been a major pillar of that model. It will continue to be a model, not just for Emirates, but for the whole aviation sector here. As long as that is in place, we can continue to grow this super hub.

The 2023 ATW Lifetime Achievement recipient is Tim Clark.

The full interview can be heard on our Window Seat podcast at bit.ly/402PtGl.