Emirates airline founder Sir Maurice Flanagan: Dubai is like Venice in its pomp

You Live & You Learn: Sir Maurice Flanagan, founder of Emirates airline, on ditching a football career, his admiration for Ryanair, and why autocracy doesn't work.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 28 Oct 2013

I could have been a professional footballer and trialled with Blackburn Rovers. But I snapped my cruciate ligaments, an injury that has dogged me ever since. It's as well I didn't - footballers made £7 a week in those days.

So I joined BOAC in 1953. (Bastards Overseas Avoiding Conscription, as it was known.) Got posted to Kano, Calcutta, Tripoli, Bangkok. You saluted the captain and flag as you taxied out in those days. Lovely organisation.

The BA/Iberia merger was a bad idea. The business is inherently unprofitable. It shows that size isn't all. Economies of scale go backwards after a certain point.

I wrote an ITV drama in the 1960s. A satire on management theory that starred Leonard Rossiter. I'm also a poet and have had work in the Spectator.

We arrived in Dubai in 1978. Now it's like Venice in its pomp. It's a city of merchants - a mediaeval court with king and barons. Emirates, the second-biggest airline in the world, is the equivalent of the Venetian fleet.

From the beginning, I got all Emirates cabin crew applicants psychometrically tested. Those who didn't want to be nice to others got rejected.

Our competitors have accused us of being unfairly subsidised. Not true. Sheikh Mohammad made that clear. (I got our ID done for £75,000. Look what BP paid to tweak its logo.) You couldn't say that about Etihad or Qatar Airways.

Ryanair is the only pure low-cost airline. I've never flown on its planes but I like O'Leary very much. A master of publicity. Not sure Emirates could treat its passengers like that, though.

There is no better way to manage than by walking around. Autocracy doesn't work. Talk to people in their offices, find out what's on their minds.

I did the Arsenal sponsorship myself. Stadium and shirt £83m over 18 years. A good deal back in 2004.

This year, at 85, I felt I had to retire. My boss, Sheikh Ahmad, said: 'When you see some good in me, you see what Maurice taught me. My bad habits are my own.' I was proud of that. So we've retired to our flat in Kensington, which the estate agents tell me is now worth £4m. Incredible.

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