Sir Tim Clark, one of the airline industry’s greatest visionaries

January 05, 2020
Emirates president Tim Clark.

The airline industry this year will lose its greatest visionary of the past 30 years with the retirement of Sir Tim Clark as president of Emirates in June.

In an era when airline chief executives come and go with regularity, Sir Tim has been part of Emirates from the very start of its spectacular history in 1985 — a history that has been largely shaped by his vision for mass travel.

That concept was born when Sir Tim cut his airline teeth with British Caledonian Airways (BCAL) in the early 1970s.

At BCAL, working on the check-in counter just out of university, Sir Tim was stunned by the “Laker effect”.

He explained to that he would come to work and the “sleeping queue” was ready to pay for Sir Freddie Laker’s daily cheap flights to New York.

Sir Freddie Laker and his DC-10 Skytrain

“There were no bookings so when the DC-10 was full, the person who just missed out would be at the head of the queue for tomorrow’s flight. It just didn’t worry them.”

But Sir Tim’s passion for things that fly dates back even further to when his family lived in Borneo. At the age of five he tied palm fronds to his arms and tried to fly.

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While that bid to take to the air did not succeed, that love of flight has given wings to an airline world with Sir Tim directly influencing the design of almost every major long-haul aircraft flying today.

The first aircraft to be touched by his magic wand was Boeing’s 365-seat 777. In 1999 Boeing was trying to give the design greater legs and was “messing around”, according to Sir Tim, with a small booster engine in the tail.

Boeing 777-300ER

Sir Tim talking with the author at the time laughed the concept off and demanded Boeing give him a really decent (more powerful) engine. Boeing did and the 777-300ER and 777-200LR were JUborn with the General Electric GE90 115,000lb thrust engine and Emirates ordered 144.

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The aircraft is the backbone of the world’s long-haul fleets — and the engine the most reliable. Next, he turned his attention to Airbus with its A380 and his innovations were to shape the aircraft and give it much greater success than it would have otherwise had.

Sir Tim’s next objective was to convince Airbus to make its new twin-jet the A350 from composite material, not aluminium.

Airbus Emirates A350
Airbus A350

Airbus listened, and sales rocketed with almost 1000 sold.

His swansong, without doubt, is the Boeing 777X which will fly this month.

The greatly enhanced version of the 777-300ER owes its design and performance to Sir Tim’s demands.

He now calls it a “peach” and has ordered 115 for Emirates.

That aircraft promises to eclipse the sales of earlier models over the next 20 years.


There is no question that these aircraft would not have had the performance they do if it were not for Sir Tim’s relentless pursuit of design excellence, fuel economy and enhanced capability.

Unlike most airline chief executives, Sir Tim, knows aircraft and engines and pushes the technology envelope.

Emirates, under Sir Tim has evolved as a truly global airline, just as Pan Am was in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sir Tim says he is “constantly surprised by the traffic flows” that result when it launches new services.

One example, was a Dubai-Shanghai service and the airline was overwhelmed with Egyptian workers wanting to go via Dubai to the Chinese city.

Clark Emriates retire

It also has benefited from the disarray among some of the carriers in its region, becoming the airline of first choice to many destinations, and from Dubai’s Western-style society making the city a magnet for business meetings for all nationalities.

Emirates is now the world’s biggest international airline, carrying almost 60 million passengers last year, with a fleet of 259 aircraft and another 203 on order.

It serves 158 destinations in 84 countries.

Mr Clark who was knighted for his services to the aviation industry and British prosperity in 2014 has come a long way from his attempts to take flight with palm fronds and the industry and its passengers are far better off because he came their way.