It flies the fanciest product on the biggest planes on the longest routes.

It flies the fanciest product on the biggest planes on the longest routes. There might not be much more room to soar.

In their fifth week of training, women hired as flight attendants at Emirates Airline spend a day in Dubai with Pamela Mizzi. A makeup artist from Malta who spent 12 years in the sky herself, Mizzi greets the students in a windowless instruction space about 20 feet across, lined on three sides by mirrors divided into vanities by bright roundels of light, like an old-timey dressing room. Her job is to teach the trainees how Emirates expects them to look.

Female cabin crew, referred to invariably as “girls,” are to tie their hair back in tight buns, preferably secured by a scrunchie in Emirates-brand red. For makeup, a seven-step process is recommended, starting with foundation and concealer, then moving on to lipstick, also in preauthorized shades of crimson. At the back of Mizzi’s classroom are two display racks of Emirates-approved emollients for “body shaping,” “firming,” “wrinkle control,” and “luminosity.”

“We have standards in regards to nail care,” Mizzi says. The same is true for weight. If a crew member looks too heavy, his or her superiors are to report their suspicions to a central fitness and nutrition department. “And they follow up,” she says. Little escapes scrutiny. By the time crew members reach Mizzi’s classroom, they have moved into Emirates-managed apartments with Emirates-imposed curfews, travel to work in Emirates-branded minibuses, and see Emirates-employed doctors at in-house Emirates clinics.

The airline, which is based in Dubai and owned by its government, has become the world’s largest long-haul carrier by never relaxing its grip—on employees, on airplane manufacturers, or on its own ambitions. Emirates recently configured a plane to seat 615 passengers, a record, and flies the world’s most epic nonstop route, an 8,824-mile arc from Dubai to Auckland.

Emirates is essentially the only buyer of the largest commercial airliner, the Airbus A380, which it gilds with stand-up cocktail bars and in-flight showers. For every flight departing Dubai, as cabin crew head to their airplanes, the last room they traverse is a hall with mirrors on one side and windows to the tarmac on the other. The space allows workers to inspect themselves for perfection against a backdrop of government-owned taxiways thick with Emirates jets. That’s the airline, in one image: glamour and ambition in a framework of absolute control.

Since 1985, Emirates has grown from a two-plane operation at a desert airstrip into a force whose every movement rumbles through global aviation. The airline’s growth is inseparable from that of Dubai, with both straining the laws of financial and physical gravity. The company’s chairman is Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the uncle of Dubai’s absolute monarch. He also runs the airport authority, the aviation regulator, and the city’s largest bank, should Emirates ever need a loan.

Out in the desert, a half-hour drive from the coast’s skyscrapers and malls, the government is building a $32 billion, five-runway megahub precisely to Emirates’ specifications. Its ambitions are consonant with its name: Dubai World Central. The project will have a capacity of 220 million passengers per year, four times the number that New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport serves today. Two-thirds of humanity lives within the radius of an eight-hour flight. Among industry veterans, the airline’s rise inspires a respectful awe. “Emirates is unprecedented,” says Tony Tyler, a former chief executive officer of Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific. “There’s never been anything as huge.”

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