Maurice Flanagan, aviation executive, 1928-2015

When Maurice Flanagan arrived in Dubai in 1978, the 49-year-old from northwest England already had 25 years of airline experience under his belt and the Gulf port had little or none. The young Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, now ruler, tapped him to create the links that would turn an entrepot town into today's skyscraper-strewn paean to commercialism.

Flanagan, who has died aged 86, was the founding senior executive at Emirates, charting the airline's ascent to a global carrier that drives the city-state's development. Aviation, which contributes a quarter of Dubai's gross domestic product, is now pushing the city into an "aerotropolis" strategy via a $32bn airport development under way.

He became the managerial fulcrum around which a multinational team constructed an airline whose growth model, lately copied by neighbouring carriers such as Etihad in Abu Dhabi and Qatar Airways, is reshaping long-haul travel.

Starting with two aircraft as a rival to Gulf Air, the regionally dominant carrier of the time, the expatriate-led management focused on delivering higher quality service and in-flight entertainment than competitors. Emirates now has a fleet of 231 and 84,000 staff and aims to become the world's biggest international airline by passenger traffic by 2020.

Born in the Lancashire town of Leigh on November 17 1928 to a miner turned insurance salesman and his wife, Flanagan was educated at grammar school before studying history and French at the University of Liverpool. National service took him into the Royal Air Force as a navigator. A knee injury prevented a possible career with Blackburn Rovers football club.


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>A television script satirising management theory elicited an offer to write for the National Theatre for the budding playwright. Instead he joined BOAC, the long-haul precursor to British Airways, in a job that included postings to Thailand, Kenya, Peru, Iran and India. He moved to Dubai initially to run Dnata, a travel services and ground handling company that became part of Emirates after the airline began service in 1985.

Asked what the launch would cost, Flanagan quoted a price tag of $10m. Sheikh Mohammed provided that seed money as well as finding a further $70m in "cash and kind" support. From its third year on, Emirates has delivered its government shareholder an unbroken annual profit. Sir Maurice, as he became in 2010, long denied that the airline received subsequent state handouts, calling those touting subsidy claims "persistent conspiracy theorists". Emirates and its Gulf competitors now face a challenge from US carriers that are using the allegations to try to limit their access to North America.

The airline's success, in Flanagan's view, came from the government's commitment to airport infrastructure and the city's "perfect" geographical position, allowing most world cities to be linked via Dubai. But he also gained a reputation for selecting competent managers and granting them autonomy.

Ghaith al-Ghaith, the emirati who runs Dubai's low-cost airline Flydubai and is a potential future Emirates chief, describes him as "a great mentor".

In 2006 the Briton stepped back from day-to-day management, devolving power to two presidents: Sir Tim Clark took charge of the airline, with Dnata boss Gary Chapman handling group services. As executive vice-chairman, he continued to put in long hours as an adviser to Sheikh Ahmed, who oversees aviation for the ruler.

His extended tenure sparked tension among some in senior management. But Sheikh Ahmed insisted that he remain out of respect for his experience. Flanagan finally retired in 2013, splitting his time between Dubai and his Chelsea home. Diagnosed with cancer this year, he died in London surrounded by his family. He is survived by his wife, Audrey, and three children.

A Roman Catholic, he was a parishioner at Dubai's oldest church. He also wrote poetry throughout his life, publishing an anthology last month. Seeking to deepen Dubai's cultural offering, he was involved in Emirates' sponsorship of the city's literary festival.

The Lancastrian left a broad imprint on the airline. A fan of shepherd's pie, he ensured the lamb and potato dish was ubiquitous across its network, from corporate events to passenger lounges.

Flanagan's love of sport translated into strong patronage from Emirates, which became a big backer of domestic and global sporting events, from Formula One to football. His personal passion was cricket - the oval at The Sevens, an Emirates-sponsored stadium in Dubai, was named in his honour.

Simeon Kerr

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