Experiments & pivots that kept Emirates Airlines alive in COVID times

Adaptability is key in crisis times. When looking at the different industries impacted most by the current pandemic, you will be able to spot several players that are showing more agility than others. Since the start of our Low Touch Economy series, we’ve kept a close eye on the airline business. Within this field, Emirates Airlines seems to stand out. Let’s have a closer look!

Experimental air travel innovations

For those who miss air travel, there are plenty of substitutes available. Some are betting on VR tourism, but I don’t see this to have mainstream potential anytime soon. However, the rising success of the latest Microsoft Flight Simulator could be an indicator that this market could be bigger than I originally anticipated. 

Some people even miss microwaved airplane meals. Several brands are shipping their meals to people’s houses to at least partially recreate that experience at home. (Friendly in-flight catering service not included.)

Recently, the most notable mini-airline experience for purchase must have been offered by Eva Air. For fathers day they sold tickets nowhere. Their branded Hello Kitty plane took off from Taipei, only to land several hours later in Taipei. During this short sightseeing tour, a Michelin-rated meal was served. Strangely enough, plenty of passengers showed interest, so a second flight is already in the works.

While these show experiments in the margin, the challenge for many airlines is about surviving the next year or two. 

Emirates Airlines, strengthening its business model

1) Cutting costs to be flexible

Unfortunately, this airliner has already laid off thousands of employees. The latest reports forecast the first reduction of 15% of the workforce. At the same time, many other expenses are cut, salaries have been reduced, and many planes are grounded and stored indefinitely. Like many airlines, Emirates Airlines tries to fold back on the essentials to be flexible enough to navigate the turbulent times ahead. 

2) Protect the core: level up air travel experience

  • Emirates Airlines shows how to proactively tackle this crisis. They were the first airline to roll out on-site rapid 10 min COVID-19 tests for all passengers – a service now copied by many brands and airports. 
  • Safety first: Several planes have additional crew onboard to help with safety measures like cleaning and disinfecting cutlery,  as well as restrooms. New onboarding procedures have been introduced to minimize people-to-people interaction and every passenger is offered a personal hygiene kit. All on-board staff wear PPE.
  • New insurance: paying for your funeral. Additional COVID-19 insurance was developed to cover the risk for travelers. If passengers would get sick or need to be quarantined, Emirates would pay for these additional costs. Even funeral costs would be covered. 

3) New services & growth options (B2B vs B2C)

  • Another sign of agility can be seen in the rapid roll-out of new freight travel services.

    Emirates SkyCargo transformed 10 Boeing 777-300ER aircraft from passenger planes to freight planes. All economy seats were removed in order to ship up to 17 tons of additional cargo. While passenger travel was down, some B2B freight travel demand increased. Many regions needed additional medical supplies, so tapping into this new need was definitely a smart strategy.
  • Switching between business travel & regular tourism.

    The next few years will remain turbulent. While it’s anticipated that tourism may recover as soon as tourists feel safe again, business travel may be altered forever. Globally, companies have invested in new remote meeting setups and procedures. Many expected that not all B2B travel will bounce back to normal levels.

    With demand swinging up and down, Emirates needs to be flexible. In this regard, they are adding several smaller planes to their fleet to be more efficient. 


What’s most noticeable about Emirates Airlines is the speed with which they travel from the first idea to implementation and execution. They seem to have created a culture, internally, that allows them to make decisions early on when there is still a lot of uncertainty, and just go with it. Organizations that are too risk-averse will be too slow to respond and might not be able to survive the crisis. 

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