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AP Interview: Emirates airline boss sees more US growth

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The man in charge of the Middle East’s biggest airline, Emirates, said Tuesday he is pressing ahead with a global expansion that could include more U.S. routes despite opposition from American carriers who accuse the airline of having an unfair advantage.

Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Emirates’ chairman and CEO, said in an interview that several American cities have asked Emirates to launch routes connecting them with its ever-expanding hub in Dubai.

He declined to name the potential destinations, citing competitive reasons and confidentiality agreements, but said the Dubai government-backed carrier is looking to accommodate the requests “in a very short period of time.”

“We always learn we cannot stop, and this is really the direction of the UAE government and the Dubai government. The minute you stop, somebody will pass you,” he told The Associated Press. “In terms of expansion, we will continue.”

Emirates plans to release its annual financial results Thursday. Sheikh Ahmed suggested that international currency fluctuations have offset some gains from lower oil prices but he said that overall “it’s been an excellent year.”

The airline is looking to increase services “on every continent” — it operates multiple routes into all except Antarctica — by adding additional routes and increasing frequencies on more than 140 existing ones, he said.

The carrier recently announced plans for daily flights to Orlando, its 10th U.S. passenger destination. That should begin Sept. 1.

U.S. airlines have for years quietly criticized the rapid growth of Emirates and its smaller Gulf competitors, accusing them of poaching passengers and unfairly benefiting from government assistance.

The dispute has been heating up, with American, Delta and United releasing a report this year outlining what they say are billions of dollars in subsidies to Gulf carriers. They are pressing Washington to reconsider treaties that allow Gulf airlines to fly to the U.S.

Emirates, although owned by Dubai’s government, vigorously denies receiving state subsidies and says it plans to respond in detail to the claims.

“I think we’re dealing with the allegations,” Sheikh Ahmed said. “We have been transparent.”

Emirates says it carried more than 2.3 million passengers to and from the U.S. last year.

Jill Zuckman, a spokeswoman for a coalition known as the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies that includes the three big U.S. airlines and a number of labor unions, responded to Sheikh Ahmed’s comments by saying that Emirates and other Gulf carriers “aren’t simply growing” by adding routes to the U.S.

“They are racing against the clock to dump more subsidized capacity into U.S. markets and divert passengers away from the U.S. airlines,” she said in an statement.

Sheikh Ahmed, the uncle of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, wears many hats in Dubai, both inside and outside of the aviation industry that is a bedrock of the emirate’s economy.

He is president of Dubai’s civil aviation authority, which regulates the industry, and is chairman of government-owned low-cost carrier FlyDubai and airport operator Dubai Airports, among other roles.

He denied any conflict of interest in his multiple positions, which also include a top seat on the Dubai Executive Council — the main advisory body for Dubai’s ruler — and the chairmanship of the sheikhdom’s Supreme Fiscal Committee, which oversees financial matters.

“I’ve always been involved in the aviation sector, for example, but I always have teams and executives on every sector of the business,” he said, likening his role to that of a national leader who delegates responsibilities to government ministers.

Dubai Airports, which must keep pace with Emirates’ breakneck growth, announced Tuesday that construction will begin later this year to expand Dubai’s second airport, Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central, so it can handle 26 million passengers a year, up from 6 million now.

Officials are eager to shift more airline traffic to that new facility even as they expand the older Dubai International Airport, now the world’s busiest airport for international traffic.

Emirates needs the extra space. The carrier plans to take on 27 new aircraft this year alone and is recruiting thousands of staff to fill newly created positions and to replace those left vacant by departing employees.

It is also planning to roll out new offerings for the lucky few who fly in first-class, Sheikh Ahmed said.

“Whatever you do for today is not good for tomorrow, and this is why we have to keep on moving,” he said.

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