Is Emirates the World's Best Airline?

Alexander Gronsky

From a flatbed 36,000 feet in the air to the company's headquarters on the ground, Mark Seal discovers how the aviation leader is achieving global domination, one $10,000 business-class ticket at a time.

Hello Tomorrow” read the ads for Emirates, the commercial airline of the future, and the young men and women in the lobby of the Marriott in Torrance, California, are vying to join the dream. It is an Open Day for potential Emirates flight attendants, and by 9 a.m. the lobby is engulfed with aspirants­: first 50, then 60, then 70 and more. Fresh-faced college grads, a Gap salesclerk in an employee-discount three-piece suit, a refugee from the ruins of another airline, professionals seeking escape from various careers—all silently plotting against one another­ in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Urdu and Valley Girl–speak.

Ready to leave their jobs, homes, friends and families and move full-time to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, they are competing in an American Idol–style brains-and-beauty contest to become Emirates cabin crew. They’ve dieted off pounds to meet the airline’s strict weight restrictions, had tattoos removed, endured makeovers, all for the age-old quest: to see the world. Alas, on Open Days like this, only one or two will impress enough to win a one-way ticket to the airline’s headquarters in Dubai, where they will, after seven weeks of intensive training, join the elite force of 18,000 Emirates flight attendants, comprising 140 nationalities speaking more than 50 languages.

I had long seen them swinging through airports, members of the Emirates flight crew, the women wearing their blood-red hats with white scarves billowing like exotic veils, and the pinstripe khaki uniforms, reminiscent of the business suits and pillbox hats of Pan Am’s 1960s prime. But no airline has matched the global reach of Emirates, which, in the 29 years since its birth, has transformed from a start-up regional carrier with two leased airplanes with an Arabic symbol on the tail—Could they even serve alcohol on board?—into the freewheeling sultan of the skies.

It all begins here, at Open Days held in more than 140 cities in 70 countries. It’s not about the money, which, according to leaflets, consists of an average annual starting salary of $29,520 (though it is tax-free), along with free room and board in Dubai. The applicants aren’t here to join an airline; they’re here to join a movement, to become an ambassador of what has developed into an iconic brand, uniting people and places around the world.

I’m now one of them. Except in my case, I’m fed up with flying, with the cutbacks, cattle car lines, draconian rules, restrictions and widespread indifference of most commercial domestic, and many international, carriers. Like the Open Day aspirants, I’m desperate for a change. I need to fly on Emirates, to immerse myself in the world of Emirates­, to determine why this unlikely Middle Eastern airline is arguably the best commercial airline in the world.

The black SUV, included in the $10,000 round-trip Emirates Business Class ticket, picks me up at 8 a.m. for flight 204, departing JFK airport for Dubai at 11:20 a.m. It’s a quick ride to the airport, where an Emirates baggage handler waits at the curb. In less than five minutes, my bags are checked, boarding pass issued. When the flight is called, I walk from the Business Class Lounge, one of the airline’s 30 lounges worldwide, passing a wall-sized Emirates ad that reads “Boredom Is Grounded Indefinitely,” and step straight into the upper deck of the Airbus A380, the world’s biggest jetliner, tall as an eight-story building.

I sink into the flatbed seat, which, compared with those of other international industry leaders, including Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, is state-of-the-art, as is the 1,600-channel in-seat entertainment system­. There’s a small minibar of soft drinks and snacks, but who wants to fetch their own drinks in business and first class? The allure of Emirates goes beyond its hardware into what aviation writer Gary Leff tells me is the “halo effect of some of the over-the-top things they do.” He calls the in-your-face features the “Emirates bling”: the two enormous spa showers in first class; the 14 first-class suites, each with a vanity table, closet, 23-inch TV screen and electronic doors that seal shut for total seclusion; the young fleet, which includes 50 A380s (already more than any other airline, with 90 more on order).

The plane lifts off in a quiet purr—with 550-plus tons and 500 passengers—and soon a caravan of flight attendants, fluent in a dozen languages, is rolling down the aisles, a parade of smiles and service.

“You’re able to park things that are difficult in your life,” a woman’s voice assures me from the noise-canceling headset. “Untether yourself from your schedule.... Let all that go.”

It’s time to head to the lounge. It’s big and circular, with a horseshoe-shaped stand-up bar in the center, created in the cross-aisle for which Emirates forfeited a number of business-class seats. In ads the lounge is shown bubbling with bon vivants: bearded hunks just back from jungles as wild as their souls; unattached beauties with come-hither-into-my-sliding-door-domain smiles; cosmopolitans, captains of industry and other celebrants conversing in the new disco of the skies. When I burst in at about noon, the bar is being staged, a theater set being erected by nine flight attendants assembling bottles, glasses and snacks. Soon Champagne corks are popping and fellow passengers arrive.

Do not run, I tell myself. These people aren’t angling to steal your overhead space or cut in front of you at the bathroom. These are your friends.

We’re immediately hoisting high-noon cocktails, expertly served by the icy-cool and blonde Vaida, from Lithuania, who stands behind the bar, engaging, informative, one of us. There’s a braggadocio Abu Dhabi oil-company employee, a suave Pakistani construction magnate, a mysterious woman with a Kelly bag and a fresh facelift, and a rotund London-based leasing agent, who’s a top-tier Platinum member of the airline’s Sky­wards frequent-flier program. He is celebrating his 400th Emirates flight. “You can go anywhere on Emirates,” he says, showing me what he calls “the bible,” the thick booklet of the spidery route system. He is fanatically devoted, in love with the crew—“an international mix,” he says—and his fellow fliers.

“Met quite a few interesting people on board,” he says. “Formula One drivers coming­ back from Kuala Lumpur. The Scottish Rugby team going down to New Zealand. The best one was the Bangladesh cricket team. They took most of business class. So I was part of the party. People are always exchanging business cards, making contacts. You stand here and it happens. The other day it was Luca Cordero di Montezemolo [chairman of Ferrari]. My favorite was Donna Karan on the Dubai–to–Hong Kong flight.”

When I tell him I’m headed to headquarters, he begs me to persuade the powers that be to anoint him as I.O.—Invitation Only—a super-elite group of passengers personally selected by the Emirates brass for special perks and privileges.

I summon Vaida to bring him a drink, but he insists that he never eats or drinks alcohol on board. “Lap-band surgery,” he says.

For lunch, a mint-crusted lamb cutlet with Veuve Clicquot and some World’s End Spirit in the Sky Syrah 2010, two movies. Intermittent naps, breakfast and 13 hours later, I land at Dubai International Airport.

It is 8:20 a.m., and the sun is rising over the most ambitious city on earth, whose airport, serving 75 million passengers annually, blew past London’s Heathrow in the first quarter of 2014 to become the world’s busiest airport for international passengers, from which 224 Emirates planes serve 145 destinations.

I am greeted by an envoy of Emirates Group handlers, beginning with one of the around 600 multinational and multilingual members of the premium meet-and-greet team called Marhaba, Arabic for “welcome.” She coddles me through Terminal 3—the world’s largest airport terminal, built for Emirates at a cost of $4.5 billion—then from the luggage carousel to a town car. Outside, in the 100 degree desert heat, I’m driven to the Jumeirah Emirates Towers hotel. From there, it’s off for a four-hour city tour with the effervescent Nabil Almallah, a guide with Gulf Ventures, another Emirates Group company.

“Dubai is the capital of the world now!” he exclaims as we drive by the biggest this, the tallest that, the greatest everything. “Two hundred nationalities! Speaking more than 130 languages! It is the city of S’s, the city of superlatives! Sun! Sand! Shopping! Sheikh! Safari! Skydiving! Skiing! Service!” He takes a rare breath and adds, “Sex!”

In this emirate built on sand, we pass the major miracles: Dubai Mall, with its 1,200 shops; the mammoth Atlantis, The Palm resort on Palm Island, the world’s largest manmade island, its many sandy palm fronds home to dozens of luxury hotels and residences; Ski Dubai, the Middle East’s first indoor ski resort (with a penguin show); and, finally, the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Its majestic steel arms stretch 2,716.5 feet toward the white-hot heavens. “As Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, once said, ‘The word “impossible” doesn’t exist in our dictionary,’” exclaims Almallah.

And what stokes this megalopolis, ferrying the multitudes here, what turned this sleepy former pearl-diving village into a mecca of business and tourism, is an airline.

At last I see it, rising up from the Dubai airport, framed by the fins of Emirates planes on distant tarmacs and rivaling anything I’d seen on the Tour of Superlatives: the international headquarters of Emirates Airline. It’s a silvery steel-and-glass colossus whose side is covered by the enormous face of a flight attendant, glorious in her standard-issue red lipstick, flawless makeup and crowning red hat. Inside, it’s like that woman has been replicated by a thousand. Emirates flight attendants are everywhere, laughing and smiling, always smiling.

Today is Annual Results Day, a near-holy event each May, even though the outcome is always the same: Profits are Up! Up! Up! The results will be delivered, as they are each year, by the airline’s chairman and chief executive, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, a powerful member of the royal family who also leads the entire aviation sector of Dubai. A holiday air fills the expansive atrium, where endless rows of seats are arranged before several enormous video screens.

I join the media in the adjacent auditorium, sitting behind the front row of Emirates executives in flowing white dishdashas and headdresses, with one business suit at their center, Emirates president Sir Tim Clark, who reportedly consults with the sheikh before every major decision.

Triumphant music swells, and Sheikh Ahmed, with his five o’clock shadow and dishdasha, sits behind a white desk and says it’s been a good year. The screen behind him fills with arrows arching skyward. Group annual profit: $1.1 billion, up 32 percent over the previous year, on revenues of $23.9 billion, representing the group’s 26th straight profitable year, with passenger loads up 13 percent to 44.5 million.

The figures represent Emirates’ domination over staid and complacent American and European carriers, who unsuccessfully fought to prevent Emirates from entering their route systems, and the airline’s radical redrawing of the map of the world, transferring its center, the hub of international air travel, from Europe to Dubai. But the triumphant, fawning mood is temporarily broken when the sheikh accepts questions from the media. A reporter mentions Etihad, the Abu Dhabi–based national airline of the UAE, whose airport is an hour’s drive away. Days earlier Etihad had introduced, with grand bravado, a three-room, $21,000 one-way Residence and nine $16,000 one-way, one-room First Apartments, complete with Savoy Academy–trained butlers and private chefs, on its A380 London–Abu Dhabi flights, set to begin in December 2014, with New York and Sydney to follow.

“How is Emirates prepared to confront this challenge?” the reporter asks.

There have recently been rumblings in the aviation media that Emirates is not invincible, and Joe Brancatelli, the business travel writer, tells me, “I could make the case that Emirates’ moment has passed. I think Cathay Pacific is as good in first [class], almost as good in business. Emirates was the trendy airline three or four years ago.” For only the second time since its inception, Emirates canceled an airplane order, for 70 Airbus A350s worth $16 billion, in June. And now Etihad? Attempting to out-suite Emirates, whose officers claim to have pioneered the first-class suite 11 years ago? Going bling-to-bling with Emirates?

Later, I would see Etihad’s moxie on display at Dubai’s Arabian Travel Market, where Etihad’s booth, in full, flaunting view of Emirates’ gigantic, walk-in “Globe,” featured life-size models of its Residence and First Apartment, complete with a tuxedo-clad butler. When I mention to Etihad’s elegant Dina-Mari Avenant, manager of first-class training, who is on duty in the booth, that I had come to Dubai to determine how Emirates gets the edge on other airlines, she says, “I truly believe we will be the best airline in the world. Of course, it’s a competitive airline. If they choose to fly with Emirates, it takes money out of our pocket. We have a great relationship with Emirates, but at the end of the day, it’s a business.”

But the sheikh flicks away the reporter’s question as if Etihad is nothing more than a pesky flea.“Over the years, we have always managed to come up with new products,” he says, and word quickly spreads that Emirates will soon be announcing even grander residences.

I was here from the beginning,” says the exuberant Mohammed H. Mattar, divisional senior vice president, Emirates Airport Services, sitting at his desk high in the headquarters, in his white dishdasha and headdress. “I arrived a week before the airline started, on October 25, 1985.”

He was a young man then, standing in Dubai’s early airport, wearing his uniform—dark slacks, white shirt and thin blood-red tie—when the first two Emirates planes, leased from Pakistan International Airlines, lifted off the ground. There were few passengers that day, but the planes were fueled by the power, fortune, imagination and rage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the present ruler of Dubai, then 36.

“With each new day in Africa, a gazelle wakes up knowing he must outrun the fastest lion or perish,” Sheikh Mohammed wrote in his 2012 book, My Vision (Motivate Publishing). “At the same time, a lion stirs and stretches, knowing he must outrun the fastest gazelle or starve. It’s no different for the human race. Whether you consider yourself a gazelle or a lion, you have to run faster than others to survive.”

In the 1980s, Gulf Air, then a formidable airline owned by the governments of Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Oman, made the mistake of belittling Dubai as a gazelle, cutting much of its routes into the emirate over some perceived infraction. This infuriated the young sheikh, who, leading an emirate without significant oil resources, envisioned business and tourism as Dubai’s future. He shut down Gulf Air’s Dubai office and tapped British Airways veteran Sir Maurice Flanagan, then running dnata, the Dubai airport’s ground and cargo handling division, to lay plans for Dubai’s own airline, which the sheikh would bankroll with the equivalent of $10 million in royal funding. To lead the airline and the Dubai Department of Civil Aviation, the sheikh appointed a member of his royal family, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who, at 26, had just graduated from the University of Denver in the United States and had never held a real job before, so “it fell to Flanagan to train the sheikh as his boss,” wrote Rice University fellow Jim Krane in his 2009 book, City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism (Atlantic). According to the book, the airline received an additional $90 million in future royal subsidies, plus a gift of two planes from the royal fleet.

Born by royal decree and owned by the Dubai government, and thus unencumbered by unions or traditional shareholders, free­wheeling Emirates began to roar: Serving 12 destinations by 1988! 34 by 1995! 12.5 million passengers by 2005! In periods in which other airlines were both paralyzed or, in many cases, bankrupt—after the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and the international recession of 2008—Emirates took possession of a historic number of new aircraft: 51 planes worth $15 billion in November 2001, and $34.9 billion in new airplanes that it had optimistically ordered in 2007 at the Dubai Airshow, the year before the global recession. “We operated normally,” says Mattar. “We opened more stations during 2008. We put on more aircraft. We carried more passengers.”

But, again, Emirates is much more than its hardware, which becomes clear the moment I meet the airline’s Svengali of service, the proudly demanding Terry Daly. On the day of my visit, he sits in his office, obsessing over the creases in a tablecloth.

As senior vice president of service delivery, Daly is responsible for all in-flight services, including catering, flight attendants and duty-free sales, and nothing escapes his famously discerning eye. “I remember, for instance, we did a launch about four years ago with some new crockery,” he says. “I noticed that whenever you tended to go on airlines, the tablecloths have those creases on them. Some of the creases went down and some went up, where they were folded in squares. So I said to the team, ‘I want crease-free linen on our airplanes!’”

He pauses, and I can see the creases still wreaking havoc upon his finely tuned sensibilities. “They tried to give me all sorts of reasons why it is difficult,” he continues, “and I said, ‘Fine. I WANT IT CREASE-FREE.’ So sure enough, we have crease-free linens.”

He places his hand over his heart. “It’s a tiny thing,” he says, but when you are dealing with literally miles of linen across hundreds of airplanes, the creases add up.

“There’s a lovely quote that I often use as a guiding light,” he says. “It goes: ‘I may not remember exactly what you said. I may not remember exactly what you did. I will always remember exactly how you made me feel.’ Every piece is important, but it is how all the pieces come together that I think has made the difference [with our service].”

Damn to those who detract or deter from Daly’s strict standards. He once famously fired eight service supervisors en masse when he discovered that the flight attendants the staff supposedly supervised had deviated from his precise decrees on dress and deportment. (“I stood watching one of our peak departure periods recently, and I was appalled at some of the things I saw,” he was quoted as writing in an internal memo.) “If you had caught me about three hours ago, you would have seen me in a yellow waistcoat,” he says. “We walk from airplane to airplane to have a look at the plane, how the product is on board and to speak to the crew. It’s amazing the power that can have, when you have a personal relationship with your staff.”

Emirates’ milestones are Daly’s touchstones, and he lovingly recites a few. “We were the first airline to have in-flight television viewing in the back of every seat,” he says. “That seems pretty normal for long-haul airlines now, but it wasn’t then. Even the concept of a suite in first class—it will be 11 years in December from the launch of the A340-500. That, in its own way, had started to become an industry standard.

“It’s about making sure the culinary offering is absolutely first class across the airplane,” he adds, and to ensure that this is understood, I am taken on a three-hour tour of the Emirates Catering Division. It’s the world’s biggest, a multi-floor maze of monorails, cameras, vast warehouses of wines, liquors, multinational chefs slaving over steaming pans, kettles, grills stretching into eternity, along with the latest in robotics, all of which delivers 115,000 meal trays to Emirates planes each day.

“It’s about getting the right people,” says Daly.

And to appreciate how Emirates collects and prepares its pilots and flight attendants, one has to look to the Emirates Aviation College, Cabin Crew Training, a state-of-the-art facility whose exterior resembles the fuselage of a jetliner, where diverse new recruits enter from almost every country and walk of life but exit as one special breed: Emirates employees.

We have got teachers, nurses, doctors, dentists, lawyers, M.B.A.’s, Ph.D.’s, opera singers, a violinist, police, linguists from the UN, people with hospitality backgrounds and quite a few joining us from other airlines,” says Catherine Baird, who, as senior vice president of cabin crew training, is the den mother to this year’s approximately 4,000 new recruits, out of 100,000 annual applicants. According to a 2008 Wall Street Journal report, the cabin crew has an average age of 26, compared with over 40 at U.S. airlines, and is 75 percent women. Their weight is carefully monitored, their makeup mandatorily reapplied regularly and unwed pregnancy is not allowed.

Among the few male flight attendants is Brandon Harris, age 30. He was working for JetBlue when, after reading about the explosive growth of Dubai in a magazine in his jump seat one day, he decided to pay his own way to fly from his home in New York to Open Day in Hamburg in 2007, before Emirates began recruiting in the States. Out of 35 people who attended that Open Day, only Harris and one other applicant moved on to Dubai, where he became what the airline calls ab initio, Latin for “the beginning.”

Along with 60 other ab initios culled from other Open Days, Harris entered Emirates’ vast no-expenses-spared crew training program, where for seven weeks he was schooled in safety and emergency procedures, self-defense, evacuation, posture, etiquette and deportment.

Service training included the fine points of presenting and pouring fine wines, conversing with “globalistas” from various cultures and, finally, maintaining the Emirates image. “It’s called image and uniform training week,” says Harris. “You go into a room that looks like a Sephora store.” It’s filled with mirrors and instructors to insure that every flight attendant is identical. Lips: red. Hair: absolutely no radical hair coloring for women or shaved heads for men (unless balding). Regular facials and manicures are required. Even their lingerie is specified: preferably beige and “well-fitted,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Smoking, eating or drinking alcohol while in uniform are disciplinary offenses. Women must adhere to “certain hairstyles that the hat will work with,” says Baird, most prominently the famous Emirates bun. “Grooming checks are done before every flight,” says Harris.

“I found at my previous airline, we had two instructors for our entire four weeks of training,” Harris continues, listing the infinite ways Emirates excels. “At Emirates, we move to different departments throughout the seven weeks and have trainers who are specialized only in their field. At [JetBlue] our uniform session was a quick PowerPoint presentation along with a demonstration of how girls were to tie their scarves and guys were to tie their ties. Here, we’re taught everything from healthy living to managing our rest to how many rings we are permitted. When walking through an airport terminal, it’s usually a Catch Me If You Can movie moment, with passengers all turning their heads.”

True to Emirates’ competitive corporate culture, once the trainees have proven their proficiency in the first five weeks of the program, then and only then are they ready to don the beige uniform, the color of sand, says Baird, for two weeks of service training. Then, for six months of in-flight probation, they step onto the plane at the post where every flight attendant begins: economy class, where the beauty and congeniality pageant begins anew for promotion to business and first class.

Achieving Emirates’ goal of global dominance is due, in large measure, to Sir Tim Clark, who arrived at Emirates at its birth, working in what would turn out to be a critical area: route planning. Two-thirds of the world’s population was within eight hours of Dubai, but the airline’s “Airbus A300 B4s barely made it from Dubai to London,” according to Aviation Week. So, the publication continued, “the lobbying for more capable aircraft began.” With each advancement in aircraft, from the introduction of the Boeing 777 in 1996 to the Airbus A380 in 2008, came an expansion of Emirates’ routes until it could “link any two points in the world now with one stop in Dubai,” as Sir Maurice Flanagan once said. Some carped that Emirates could purchase planes by royal decree and cherry-pick prime routes in countries whose airlines were burdened by shareholders and antiquated systems, giving it an unfair advantage. Clark wasn’t made available to interview, but his representatives sent a slick, 27-page dossier, titled “Airlines and Subsidy: Our Position,” in which Clark insisted that Emirates competes—and dominates—fairly, receiving neither government subsidies or free or cheap fuel and gets no “government injections, borrowings or financing...regardless of shareholder status.”

In January 2004, Emirates was preparing to launch daily nonstop flights from New York to Dubai. However, focus groups conducted earlier that year among premium-class passengers of other airlines in New York showed an alarming trend: Most potential customers did not know anything about Emirates Airline. Marketers held up the airline’s name and logo, only to get blank stares and questions: “Do they speak English? Do the flight attendants wear veils? Can you drink?”

“Americans need to know you before they will trust you,” Gary Leopold, the Boston-based advertising and marketing executive who conducted the focus groups, reported back to Emirates. “And they need to trust you before they will fly you.”

Advertising, media and public relations efforts ensued. “When launching Emirates in the Americas, I considered it not about marketing an airline but establishing a luxury brand,” says Franck Sarrabezolles, former head of Emirates advertising in the Americas. “It was about unveiling the luxury experience, knowing the lifestyle of the consumer: how they shop, live, buy a car, real estate and fine jewelry. However you can reach that consumer was the filter for our communication plans. We said, ‘Let’s create the dream.’ When we introduced daily nonstop flights to and from Dubai, with first-class suites available throughout the Americas, we showed this unique product, which didn’t look like anything you had seen on an airplane before.”

The age of Emirates accelerated in 2008 with the introduction of its Airbus A380 flights. Since the double-decker, wide-bodied, four-engine jetliner was introduced in the early 2000s, airline executives and owners, both public and private, had dreamed of how to best maximize its mammoth space. “People were fantasizing about gyms on board and casinos, bowling alleys and swimming pools,” says Sarrabezolles. “None of that really happened with any other airlines.”

Emirates capitalized on the A380’s space with revolutionary bling. To spread the word, the airline launched highly publicized inaugural flights from several cities and held special events from New York to Los Angeles, where there was a gala dinner at the Kodak Theater. Ricky Martin performed, Hilary Swank spoke and Wolfgang Puck catered. There were advertisements in glossy international magazines, on billboards and drive-time radio. The strategy worked: CEO-level executives, American celebrities, politicians, ultra-high-net-worth individuals, the rich, royal and famous were soon reveling in the new way to fly, using Dubai as a hub to connect to the world.

“This airline is amazing,” Paris Hilton tweeted in June 2009 from her Emirates first-class suite. The tweet was estimated by one publicist to be worth $1.5 million in public relations, with $3 million more in free advertising if the message spread in the media, which of course it did. “For the first time, you could travel commercially better than you could privately in anything like a Gulfstream, which was in no way as luxurious as flying on Emirates in the first-class cabin,” says event planner Colin Cowie, who has flown 12 million miles across nearly a hundred countries and became allegiant to Emirates while producing the grand opening of the Atlantis, The Palm resort in Dubai in 2008. “To walk onto the A380 in 2008, to have a bathroom the size of an average Manhattan bathroom, your own attendant, a seven-minute shower, every amenity known to man, full-size bath towels is pretty amazing. You cannot do better on a commercial flight. It was a big game changer.”

Midway through the Dubai-London flight, the Middle Easterners in first class would change their attire to suit their destination. “You’d take off from the Middle East, and everyone would be covered in white robes or black abayas,” says Cowie. “You’d land in London ,and everyone would be in bespoke suits, high heels, tight jeans, fabulous fitted tops. It would be the exact opposite going back.”

Dr. Michael Apa, a leading New York–based cosmetic dentist, heard about Emirates at a dinner party at furrier Dennis Basso’s home in Manhattan. “I was sitting next to Ivanka Trump,” he says. “She said, ‘I just got back from Dubai, and Emirates is so great.’ But I didn’t really understand, because I didn’t think I would be going to Dubai anytime soon.” Then in 2006, members of the royal family became Apa’s patients in New York. In 2008 they flew him to visit on Emirates, which the royal family flies when they are not flying privately. “I’m sitting on that plane and I’m thinking, Wow!” says Apa, who now has an outpost of his practice in Dubai and flies Emirates often.

In the first-class cabin, Apa’s fellow passengers have included Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson, sportscaster Bryant Gumbel, CNN anchor Richard Quest and rapper Busta Rhymes. But Emirates is as much about who you don’t see as much as who you do. “You are sleeping privately, while on other airlines you are sleeping with everyone else,” says Cowie.

Still, first and business class cannot sustain an airline. Emirates had to communicate its message to the masses. But outside of its stellar equipment and service, it did not yet know what its message was. By 2010, spurred by the explosive growth of tourism in Dubai, the airline was expanding at warp speed, ordering $13 billion in new aircraft.

“Emirates was growing probably as fast as Google,” says Scott Goodson, founder of the StrawberryFrog advertising agency in New York. “And the reason for that was the center of the world was changing. The old center of the world was Europe. Before, if you were flying from Asia to the States or Latin America, you had to fly through London or Frankfurt. But with the new 777s and the A380, the center of the world shifted to Dubai. If you worked at Facebook in California, you could fly from L.A. to Dubai, and it’s a quick hop to Mumbai. The airline realized they needed an idea that could rally both existing employees and new employees. Additionally, they needed help to make this Dubai-based airline not only relevant but admired by the world.”

Never thinking small, Emirates summoned the world’s ten top advertising agencies to Dubai to compete for a massive international advertising campaign. StrawberryFrog, headed by Goodson, then 46, was undoubtedly­ the underdog. But one day Goodson read an interview with Sir Tim Clark. “And in that article, he was talking about his vision, that he wanted Emirates to be a global company and wanted to make the world a smaller place by bringing people together,” says Goodson.

A flash of white light erupted in the ad man’s brain, and he wrote down the words “Hello Tomorrow.” And with those words came an idea, not just for an ad campaign, but for what he calls a “cultural movement,” in which, through powerful storytelling, words, images, music and film, Emirates Airline would be shown as the catalyst for connecting a new global culture—not a culture of flatbeds, stellar service and in-flight meals but one of shared aspirations, values, enthusiasm and dreams.

“Ad campaigns are fleeting,” Goodson told Clark and his deputies at Emirates headquarters, as he pitched his ideas through words, pictures and what he calls a “manifesto video.” “The power of a movement is that it can change habits and rally millions,” he said. “In today’s world, movements can spread like wildfire.”

After their pitch, Goodson and two other members of his team were standing on the curb outside, about to hail a cab, when Goodson’s cell phone rang. “Come back in!” Upon return they heard, “You’ve got the business.”

The movement began inside Emirates headquarters, where the StrawberryFrog team spent 18 months educating employees, making them foot soldiers in the movement to come. Then, in the early spring of 2012, the “Hello Tomorrow” brand movement began, a universal message in myriad languages in 150 countries. In television ads, an Emirates flight attendant pushed his drinks cart as a mammoth A380 Emirates airplane seemed to be literally being built around him, its various parts and personnel coming from countries spanning the globe, proof that the airline was truly an international enterprise. There was an Emirati fashion designer producing a glittering fashion show, which, although in Dubai, could have been in any fashion capital. And a sexy young woman moved through what appeared to be a hip hotel with a buzzing bar, which was actually the Emirates A380.

“Tomorrow, bridges will fly high above the earth. And an entire world will be connected and shared,” begins another ad for the airline that flies beyond boundaries.

“Outdoor, print, digital, regional advertising in the U.S., Brazil, 150 countries all over the planet,” says Goodson. “Billboards in South Korea, China, Times Square...” The results? “Broke all records—whether it was awareness or relevance or ‘Would I fly this airline?’?” he says. With the campaign, Emirates became a “culture-defining brand,” he adds, on par with iconic brands like Apple and Nike, “brands that connect global culture.”

Imagine this: A class of about 100 Emirates flight attendants is about to be dispatched into the world. Each is asked to inscribe his or her commitment to the airline on the back of a paper star—one example: “To see things how my customers see them”—and bring it with them to a special event. When they arrive—well, what happens when they walk into the room is such a heart-wrenching, allegiance-binding surprise that training director Catherine Baird swears me to secrecy, especially what becomes of the stars, so as “not to reveal the mystery” for future crews.

What I will reveal is...most airlines include some sort of motivational, team-building practice in their training exercises, but, like everything else, Emirates goes over the top in what it calls Nujoum, Arabic for “stars.” Aviation and travel writer Christine Negroni, who participated in the event on assignment for The New York Times, describes the day as a combination of a “customer service experience and a come-to-Jesus rally, highly produced like a Hollywood spectacular. If you had told me that Disney produced it, I wouldn’t doubt it. By the end of the day, they are whipped into a frenzy of feeling ‘What can I do for Emirates?’ When these employees leave, they are sobbing.”

After their six months of onboard probation, the new flight attendants attend a graduation ceremony, with three-year employee contracts as their diplomas, most reportedly staying on for an average of only 4.3 years before returning to their homelands.

But at least they’ve seen the world.

Plus: The Fabulousness of Emirates

With its tricked-out private suites and pods, Emirates has set the industry standard for first and business classes. Today thousands of items, from toothpicks to 18-year-old Chivas, are loaded onto each A380 preflight. Herewith, some of the frills that make Emirates a cut above.

  • Bulgari-designed amenity kits.
  • Cuvee Dom Perignon 2000.
  • Two onboard walnut-and-marble-design showers (with Emirates’ own all-natural Timeless Spa product line).
  • Iranian caviar.
  • Meals, from glazed duck breast to marinated prawns, served on fine bone china by Royal Doulton.
  • Specially made cutlery by British design house Robert Welch.
  • 47 nationalities of chefs; Japanese chefs create sushi for Japanese flights; Indian chefs prepare curries for Indian Subcontinent routes.
  • Beef cooked according to region: America, Europe and Australia, more rare; Middle East and Indian Subcontinent, more well done.
  • Wines produced in the majority of the 78 countries it flies to. (In addition to its vast wine stock in the Dubai catering facility, Emirates has a full warehouse in Burgundy, France. The ever-changing onboard selections range from a 2000 Cantemerle to 2010 World’s End Spirit in the Sky Syrah, made exclusively for Emirates.)