The (not so) little airline that could -- a profile of Flydubai
In case you missed it, Flydubai’s arrival today at Ben Gurion Airport marked the first scheduled passenger flight on the newly established air links between the UAE and Bahrain, and Israel. It was hard to ignore, amidst the hoopla, including a welcoming ceremony with no less than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While the least of aviation aficionados can identify Flydubai with its home base (shout out to the branding folks), the airline remains a far lesser-known entity than its globe-circling hometown partner, Emirates.
Although smaller and less renown, Flydubai is no second fiddle. Everything in Dubai is done to a grand scale, and Flydubai is no exception. Launched in 2008 by the government of Dubai, the airline announced an order for 50 Boeing 737-800s that year at the Farnborough Air Show. While Flydubai is owned by the government, it was created as a separate entity and is not part of the Emirates group. The business model was to develop secondary routes from Dubai that could be profitably operated with narrow-body airplanes and to make flying affordable. The airline serves as an integral part of a coordinated strategy by Dubai’s leaders to connect their city to the world for promoting trade, tourism, and providing affordable transportation for the emirate’s myriad of expat workers to their home countries.
Flydubai’s current fleet comprises 51 737-800s. The carrier adopted a two-class cabin featuring the Boeing Sky Interior in 2012, gradually rolling it out to the entire fleet. The airline tipped its hand as to its growth ambitions with a massive order of up to 250 737 MAX aircraft in 2014. Before COVID hit, three of those airplanes had been delivered, replete with a refreshed interior and lie-flat seats in first class.
It hasn’t all been sweetness and light. Both Flydubai and Emirates were forced to shut down for several weeks this past summer as the government struggled to contain the rising infection rates. And in 2016, and Flydubai 737-800 approaching Rostov-on-Don in Russia crashed after attempting a go-around. All 62 crew and passengers onboard perished. But the setbacks have not stopped the carrier’s growth ambitions.
In late August, Emirates and Flydubai renewed their cooperation as both carriers started to expand operations toward something resembling normal. While still maintaining separate identities and brands, the two airlines agreed in 2017 to coordinate scheduling at their Dubai International Airport (DXB) hub and to code-share on dozens of routes. The following year, Flydubai began to move more flights from its low-cost terminal on the other side of the airport to Emirates’ T3 terminal, greatly simplifying connections. And the low-cost operator joined Emirates Skywards loyalty program, enabling passengers to earn miles on both airlines.
With Flydubai’s inaugural flight to Tel Aviv today, it’s easy to forget that a mere four months ago there were no official diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel. And within weeks, El Al, Arkia, and Israir will begin flying between the two countries. Etihad and Gulf Air (from Bahrain) will start early next year.
While it might be surprising that “little upstart” Flydubai beat UAE flagship carrier Emirates to the punch, it makes total sense, as the airline can offer higher-frequency service on smaller airplanes as it grows the market. And with seamless connections in DXB, Flydubai effectively operates as the larger airline’s regional surrogate.
There’s plenty of competition in this new market. Flydubai can exercise a competitive advantage when its 737 MAX airplanes will be allowed to fly again – presumably in the very near future. With a two-class configuration and a legitimate first-class offering, it can offer the same level of service as El Al and Etihad, but at a much lower cost base. So don’t count them out. I would suspect that within a couple of years (assuming post-COVID recovery) we’ll see both Emirates and Flydubai serve Tel Aviv, each doing what they do best. In fact, with a huge backlog of MAXs on the way, you can pretty well bet on it.