Emirates sets new standard for airlines, but will its master plan fly?

A billboard on an Oakland city bus touts complimentary chauffer-driven limousine service for first- and business-class passengers flying to Dubai and beyond on Emirates Airlines. Although it might seem an unlikely place to plug an airline based 8,000 miles away, this is part of a much larger advertising campaign for a new nonstop flight linking this rapidly growing Middle East city with San Francisco, Emirates' fifth gateway in North America.

Before the ads, few locals had likely heard of Emirates or Dubai. Then a radio blitz, newspaper ads and several well-publicized media events heralded the arrival of this new airline. In San Francisco's financial district, the walls of an entire subway station were plastered with billboards and columns dressed up as palm trees to advertise exotic Emirates destinations. "Everybody in the San Francisco Bay Area knows who Emirates is today", says Terry Brodt of Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

While everyone may now know the Emirates name, the real targets of the ad campaign are the corporate travel managers and travel agents serving the many high-tech, bio-tech and financial services corporations located in San Francisco and nearby Silicon Valley. Who else would pony up $11,000 or more to fly their corporate travelers in Emirates business class, or almost $18,000 for a private first-class suite on the 16-hour nonstop journey to Dubai and beyond?

Brodt was one of 500 special guests from the local business travel community invited to a lavish steak dinner party and dance recently hosted by Emirates, featuring Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank as mistress of ceremonies, and a live performance by Grammy Award-winning singer Sheryl Crow. "It was over the top," says Brodt, who previously served as president of the Silicon Valley Business Travel Association. Brodt found it reminiscent of the "old days" when U.S. airlines routinely threw expensive parties for the business travel community when introducing a new route.

Emirates, which took flight in 1985, is one of several rapidly growing airlines based on the Arabian peninsula, a group that includes Abu Dhabi-based Etihad and Qatar Airways. These carriers boast brand new fleets of long-range, widebody aircraft and offer some of the finest service and accommodations in the sky. Emirates currently operates more than 120 new, widebody airplanes with almost 200 more on order, including 58 giant Airbus A380 aircraft, making Emirates the largest customer for the world's largest passenger jet.

Armed with new fleets, Emirates and the other airlines in that region are well-positioned to compete for long-range premium global air traffic routed through their centrally located Middle Eastern hubs. The recent economic boom in India and Asia, along with the introduction of a new generation of economical long range aircraft, like the Airbus A380, the Boeing 777LR, and forthcoming Boeing 787 and Airbus 350, make nonstop travel viable between cities clear across the globe. Previously, to reach most cities in Africa, India or the Middle East, U.S. travelers connected through major European transfer airports, like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, or Paris.

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