When you think of the airlines of the UAE, your mind is drawn to juggernaut luxury carriers like Emirates and Etihad. After all, with route networks that easily stretch across the world and logos embossed on two-story aircraft, they can’t be missed. However, they are not the only airlines to operate out of the UAE. Dubai, being the airport powerhouse it is (with a huge primarily international airport and an even bigger one on the way) is ideally suited for more than one home carrier.
This leads us to the question of who else could operate from this middle-eastern hub. Perhaps an Emirate airline that operated the low-cost carrier model with short-haul routes to complement its existing long-haul network. Well, the answer, is Fly Dubai
Who is flydubai?
flydubai was originally created by the Emirati of Dubai to serve as its short-haul equivalent of Emirates. While the bigger aircraft hauled splendid Airbus A380s around the world, flydubai would focus on the local market with a profit line that matched – helping those who couldn’t afford the gold finishes of Emirates travel from Dubai to the world. It was created in 2008 as its own legal entity, not as part of the Emirates airline although initial operations and its frequent flyer program were supported by the bigger airline (and still today you can code-share between flights).
However, unlike Emirates, the airlines’ motto would be to ‘make flying more affordable’ and operate an all-economy cabin with a single aircraft (the Boeing 737) much like other low-cost giants Ryanair. Initially, the airline planned to operate direct routes throughout the middle east, particularly with cities that didn’t have flights to Dubai with a local carrier. Like other low-cost carriers, baggage, meals, seat selection would be up for grabs for a price, allowing the airline to charge a lower base fare. Plus, the airline had a secret ingredient for success – a planned uptime of 14 and a half hours per aircraft, the highest in the industry for an airline operating the Boeing 737.
These aircraft and partnership with Emirates allow the airline to serve a very unique role – accessing smaller regional airports throughout the world that bigger aircraft (like Emirates’ fleet) can’t land at.
His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman of flydubai, said: “For many years the Government of Dubai recognized the need for another carrier to serve our country. In 2009, we were able to achieve this thanks to the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Flydubai was launched with a mandate to open new markets and make travel more accessible to more people.”
How did they begin?
The airline began ground operations in 2008 and would make an order at the 2009 Farnborough Air Show for 50 Boeing 737-800s (which at the time was the biggest order of narrowbody aircraft in the Middle-East. It would take a year for the airline to be ready for active commercial flights and like clockwork, on the 1st of June 2009, it made its inaugural commercial flight to Beirut.
By the end of that first-month flydubai had expanded its network out to Amman, Damascus, and Alexandria and by the end of the financial quarter, it was flying 100,000 passengers. With more aircraft, the airline was able to slowly expand its network across the Middle-East and into North Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, Asia, and Central & Eastern Europe. One year later in July 2010, flydubai celebrated their one-millionth passenger. Despite all the success, it would take four years before the airline would be profitable.
“[By] 2012, we carried 5.1 million passengers and with the addition of the Ha’il route in Saudi Arabia starting today (February 13), we have a network of 52 destinations served by a fleet of 28 aircraft,” said Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation to Gulf News.
Evolving beyond just low-cost
The year 2013 was a big year for the carrier with two large announcements. The first was that the airline would be moving away from the exclusive low-cost model and adding in business class. This new category would be on all the aircraft, with 12 seats in a 2-2 configuration. Passengers flying business would have a three-course meal, a 12-inch television, Italian leather seats and access to business lounges in Dubai (and certain destination airports). This would mean that passengers flying on Emirates and then transferring to Dubai would be able to maintain their business class status throughout the journey.
However, flydubai’s journey to becoming a household name would hit a little snag when it came to expanding its fleet. In 2013 when faced with the choice to go with Airbus or Boeing, the carrier decided to remain in the 737 family and secure an incredible order of 220 airframes.
“I am delighted that we end 2017 with today’s announcement representing the next chapter in flydubai’s success story,” said Ghaith Al Ghaith, CEO, flydubai. “This is our largest order in our eight-year history and our third order with Boeing whose aircraft have given us the ability to carry 44 million passengers since we began operations. With up to 296 aircraft on order, we have become one of the world’s top ten airlines in terms of order backlog and we look forward to continuing to enhance the connectivity of Dubai’s aviation hub.”
This choice would have large ramifications years later when the Boeing 737 MAX was grounded worldwide. The airline had 11 737 MAX aircraft in its fleet that were taken offline, significantly impacting the airline’s growth. Fortunately, by 2021, the Boeing 737 MAX has been cleared to fly, and flydubai expects it to resume operations (and deliveries of its order backlog) very soon.
The carrier has also been quick to react to the Coronavirus pandemic. To help offset passengers’ fears of flying during the crisis, the airline offered special insurance – any passenger that contracts COVID-19 within 31 days of their flight (not just on the flight), is able to benefit up to 150,000 Euros of medical expenses and 14 days quarantine.
Hamad Obaidalla, Chief Commercial Officer at flydubai said: “The safety of our passengers and crew remains our highest priority. The new Covid-19 cover we are offering to our passengers will encourage more people to travel with ease of mind knowing that they will be looked after at every step of their journey. We see the demand for travel starting to increase as more countries gradually lift restrictions on international travel. Safeguarding the passenger journey with added precautions and enhanced procedures will help to stimulate the flow of trade and tourism globally.”
The future of flydubai
Recently, the airline has made headlines by becoming the first to operate direct commercial service between Dubai and Tel Aviv (flight had occurred before on an ad-hoc charter basis). The service has paused for the meantime due to a new restriction in Israel, but is still a major win for political (and aviation) relations in the region.
“Since the launch of flydubai 11 years ago, we have been committed to removing barriers to travel, creating free flows of trade and tourism, and enhancing connectivity between different cultures across our network. Following the recent bilateral agreement, the start of scheduled flights will contribute to economic development and create further opportunities for investment in pursuit of our shared interests and values,” said Ghaith Al Ghaith, Chief Executive Officer, flydubai
The airline has also recently announced a route expansion in 2021 (one of the only airlines in the world to do so) with flights to Catania, Naples, Malta, and Salzburg by May.
“We have been committed to opening up previously underserved markets and the launch of our latest routes in Europe demonstrates our continuous efforts to offer more people the opportunity to travel more often while creating free flows of travel, trade, and tourism.” – Fly Dubai statement to Simple Flying
flydubai has an interesting path ahead. Its marketplace has several new entrants such as Air Arabia, Jazeera Airway, and Wizz Air moving into the market space (Wizz Air will be operating long-haul Airbus A321XLRs that will take a bite out of Emirates’ market as well). The airline also has the anticipated arrival of its new Boeing 737 MAX fleet, which will simultaneously make it one of the most modern low-cost airlines in the world, but also one that needs to make its passengers feel confident to fly – due to the controversy surrounding the 737 MAX grounding and its returned to the skies only recently.
For flydubai, its first ten years have been a time of growth and tribulation, but its next ten years will truly put it to the test. And while other airlines are struggling to navigate their way through the Coronavirus after effects, flydubai seems set for a well-navigated flight path.