Six days ahead of the 2013 Dubai Air Show, Emirates President Tim Clark had something to talk about with one of the airline's most important suppliers: He told Airbus that Emirates would like to order more A380s—50 more, to be precise. Until that day, no one at Airbus had any idea such an order might be coming. It is the biggest order ever placed for the slow-selling aircraft.

“The only thing they knew was that I had always been minded to take more,” says Clark. “They were hoping for something like five or eight additional aircraft. When we told them what we wanted, you could tell there was some deep breath-taking.”

“Breathtaking” is certainly a word that comes to mind in connection with Emirates. Launched in 1985 with one Airbus A300 B4 and one Boeing 737, the Dubai-based carrier has morphed into the world's fourth-largest airline by revenue passenger miles (2012), serving more than 120 destinations. Capitalizing on the advantageous location of its home base—80% of the world's population is within an 8-hr. flight—the carrier, like Dubai itself, is on the rise, to the detriment of incumbent airlines in Europe, North America and Asia.

And with its rise has come many billion dollars' worth of orders for jets from Airbus and Boeing. Emirates now accounts for roughly half of the A380 orderbook. On the same day of its huge A380 order, it also placed orders and commitments for 150 Boeing 777X jets, launching the program along with Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Lufthansa. Such deep pockets have given Emirates much say in the design of new airliners. The 777X, for example, will feature General Electric GE9X engines with a higher thrust specified by the airline. “We have had a lot of input, but we also buy a lot of airplanes,” says Clark.

For his role in reshaping the competitive landscape in the long-haul airline market and its outsize sway in aircraft design, Tim Clark is Aviation Week's Person of the Year for 2013.

Clark has been the dominant executive at the airline for many years, joining just before its launch and serving as president since 2003. The London University-trained economist likes to talk about the rise of low-cost carriers being a revolutionary event. But on long-haul routes, it is Emirates and its followers, Qatar and Etihad Airways, that are changing the shape of air travel, among them offering one-stop connections between most points on the globe. And according to the Teal Group, Middle Eastern carriers now account for one out of every three twin-aisle airliners on order.

But Emirates was not much more than an idea 28 years ago. Dubai's ruling Al Makhtoum family decided that the emirate should have its own airline and provided $10 million in start-up capital (plus two Boeing 727-200s a little later). Management is adamant that this was the only time that the airline received government support. Of course, the competition still complains that Emirates takes advantage of other unfair benefits such as low airport fees in Dubai (which are, however, available to every airline flying there) or access to U.S. and European export-credit financing.

Clark, born and raised abroad as the son of a tanker ship captain, became used to taking flights across the world at an early age. Flying the Super Constellation from London to Borneo was one of his favorite multiple-stop trips. While his brother became a British Airways Boeing 747-400 captain, Clark turned his passion for aviation into a profession on the business side. He joined British Caledonian early in his career, when the airline was in serious trouble. Friends who had joined Gulf Air pushed him to come to the Middle East. And Clark did. “Born as an expat child, going abroad was no problem,” he says. “I had it in me.”

He spent 10 years at Gulf Air in Bahrain, which was then the only airline in the Persian Gulf region that would have been noticed internationally. Its Lockheed L-1011s were a familiar sight at major airports in Europe and Asia. At Gulf Air, Clark played roles in cost control and economics. “I was able to see everything in the company and I therefore learnt a huge deal,” he says of those formative years.

But the new project in nearby Dubai attracted him and a group of around eight British airline executives. Clark was in his mid-30s and ready for a new adventure. “For all of us, working at an airline was more of a hobby than a profession,” he recalls. “We were all enthusiasts.”

Dubai in the mid-1980s was nothing like it is today. The city consisted more or less of only what is now the old town district in Deira, near the creek. Iconic buildings for which Dubai is famous today were not even in the planning stage. The Burj Al-Arab hotel was started in 1994 and opened in late 1999, as Dubai was becoming a destination for tourism and trade was taking off.

The ground work for Emirates had been underway since 1978, when Maurice Flanagan, another British aviation executive and later Emirates vice chairman, moved to Dubai to run Dnata, a general sales and ground-handling agent for foreign airlines. The initial business plan for Emirates was drawn up in 1984 by Flanagan and his team—Clark joined a year later, just ahead of the airline's launch. Looking back at his Emirates career, he now says, “I was at the right place at the right time.”

When he joined the nascent carrier, he did what he liked best at the time, going straight into route planning. Emirates started with two aircraft—an Airbus A300 B4 and a Boeing 737—and later obtained two Boeing 727-200s that had been operated by the Dubai air wing, and, in 1987, purchased its first new aircraft, an A310-300. The airline launched its first route, Dubai to Karachi, in late 1985, then started services to Mumbai and New Delhi. Routes to London-Gatwick and Frankfurt were added in 1987, and to Bangkok, Manila and Singapore in 1989.

Not until the early 1990s, however, did Clark begin to realize that Emirates would have a chance to become as big as it is today. “I remember telling a friend in 1988 that the Berlin wall would never come down. A year later it was gone. That was a seminal moment for me,” he says. “If things were to continue to unravel at the same speed, it would open up many opportunities for Emirates,” he says. It is that awareness of global trends, the big-picture vision, that has helped shape the airline, too. “I like to look at myself as a little bit of a globalist,” Clark says.

But it was clear to him that the Emirates expansion as envisioned would not be possible with the aircraft technology available. Its Airbus A300 B4s barely made it from Dubai to London. So the lobbying for more capable aircraft began.

As Emirates continued to grow, so did Clark. Over time, it became increasingly clear that he would succeed Flanagan as the most senior operating executive. Emirates is chaired by Sheikh Ahmed bin Said Al Makhtoum, a member of Dubai's ruling family, and the airline is only one part—albeit by far the most important one—of the larger Emirates Group. Clark sees Sheikh Ahmed “two or three times a week” and makes no important decision without the sheikh's input. He sees that “short line of command” as one of the major advantages at Emirates and, in fact, he enjoys having a board of directors, which it would not have, were it publicly listed.

“Very often there is disagreement within boards; the non-executive members may have their own agendas, and it can take forever to just get approval to buy a single aircraft,” Clark says. “I went to Sheikh Ahmed with my plan for 50 more A380s, and we had an immediate agreement.”

Clark's in-depth airline and aircraft expertise combined with his friendly outspokenness have made him into one of the most influential figures on the customer side of the industry. He is never shy to express his opinion publicly, which does not always make manufacturers happy. “He is the most aggressive [executive] toward the OEMs,” says a senior manager at a major supplier. When Airbus discovered cracks around the rib feet in some areas of the A380 wing in the spring of 2012, Clark detailed to the media what a huge burden the subsequent limitations and repair work meant for Emirates, discounting concerns about possible brand damage.

“[Airbus Chief Operating Officer Customers] John Leahy has said there is no compensation, but we take a different view,” Clark told Aviation Week in a June 2012 interview. “Airbus realized too late how complex the problem will be.” The issue has since been resolved, confidentially.

Standing up and pointing out deficiencies was “for the good of the people that have been involved with us,” he says in retrospect.

His achievements have not gone unnoticed. Clark received the U.K.'s second-highest order this month, being named a Knight Commander; he is now “Sir Tim Clark.” But he remains modest: “In all the years that I have been doing this, I never looked back. I just did it.”

Industry leaders are praising him, too. “As a Boeing customer, he is astute, strategic and demanding,” says Boeing Vice Chairman Ray Conner. “We could not be where we are at today without Tim's leadership and his ability to make the absolute most out of our product's capabilities.”

Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier agrees. “He knows everything you could possibly know about an aircraft. Just give him the key parameters of the plane and he'll tell you immediately if, in his view, it's a 'go' or a 'no-go,' calculating ranges or empty-weights in his head in a few seconds. And he'll rapidly follow that razor sharp analysis with recommendations on where to push the design to make it a 'go.'”

Clark's boss, Ahmed, notes that “Tim is one of those rare executives who can see the big picture and also get down to the technical details. What I most appreciate about Tim is that he will tell it to you as it is—good or not so good.”

Of late, Clark has been telling Airbus and Boeing what is not so good. Along with Akbar Al Baker at Qatar Airways and Air Lease Corp. (ALC) Chairman Steven Udvar-Hazy, he led the drive for an Airbus A350-1000 engine upgrade, which pushed the program back by two years. More recently, Clark also made clear to Boeing and General Electric that the 777X needed more thrust to meet Emirates' payload and range requirements. He won them over, even though other airlines have voiced concern that Boeing is over-equipping the aircraft for the needs of just one or two customers. Clark responds that engines can always be de-rated if the additional thrust is not needed, and such an arrangement will typically lead to lower maintenance costs.

But, of course, even Airbus does not always do what Clark wants. He has been arguing for years that a stretched A380-900 should be built as soon as possible. But Emirates is probably the only airline that could conceivably fill such a gigantic aircraft, and Clark likely will have to wait a lot longer for it. And in spite of all the A380's troubles, he has been the aircraft's biggest fan.

The A380 has provided an opportunity for Clark to pursue another passion: aircraft interiors. He spent months creating the product features of Emirates' A380 fleet, which was intended to become iconic in the industry yet still profit-making. Emirates' A380s are the only ones that are flying with a real bar in the back of the upper deck, which the airline says is hugely popular. In spite of all the fuel-saving features elsewhere in the cabin, the A380s also have a shower for first-class passengers. At one press conference, Clark was the only one on the panel who could explain the technical details of the shower system—the Airbus managers present listened silently.

While he does delegate, Clark is very hands-on where it matters most: network, cabin and aircraft performance. These are an airline's core areas, determining where it can fly, at what revenue potential and cost burden, and how it will distinguish itself from the competition. “I have hardly ever seen another airline CEO who would go into such great detail when it comes to interiors,” says an executive with a major supplier.

Clark himself jokes that some suppliers have been accustomed to “committees of wives of executive board members” selecting seats or inflight entertainment features.

While he is perceived as a trend-setter on the manufacturing and product side, his vision and knowledge of emerging traffic flows have been key to Emirates' development. The airline takes a different approach than most in many regards: It is not a member of a global alliance because Clark and his colleagues see that as detrimental to the carrier's ambitions. On the other hand, Emirates has always been open to bilateral alliances, such as the recent tie-up with Qantas that has shaken the alliance world. And Emirates is not ruling out equity investments—it seriously looked at buying a stake in Air Berlin in 2011, but an involvement with SriLankan Airlines was unsuccessful and has not contributed to management confidence in getting closely involved with operating other airlines.

Rather than going the traditional way, Clark has opted for the unusual, entering markets that others saw only later. It is no coincidence that Emirates' first route led to Karachi and not London nor that Emirates is huge in Africa, providing vital air links for traders that use Dubai as a hub on their way to Asia (China, in particular). While Emirates' ultra-long-haul flying to the U.S. West Coast, Latin America and Australia has garnered a lot of public attention, most of its flights are limited to ranges optimal in terms of aircraft efficiency. “The fundamentals of the model have never really changed,” he points out.

And the fundamentals are therefore firmly settled. But with Clark, who is now 63, being such a dominant figure at Emirates for such a long time, one inevitable question is beginning to be discussed internally and with business partners: Who will eventually succeed him? Clark sees “one or two” internal candidates who could take his position even now, and he makes clear that he does not plan to interfere once he steps out. “I'm a believer in 'when you go, you go,'” he says. But that discussion may well be premature—Flanagan left the airline as vice chairman officially just last year, when he was 84.

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