You’ve probably heard of flydubai, but you also probably think of it as a small airline that flies 737s on the routes from Dubai that Emirates can’t with its big widebodies. Get ready for that impression to change. The reality is that flydubai is a big airline and it’s about to get a lot bigger with yesterday’s order of 30 Boeing 787-9s.
Before we even get into the 787s, let’s talk about what flydubai has already become up to now. The airline has only been around since 2008, and it is government-owned like Emirates. It has really grown fast — the only option for a UAE-based airline, apparently — and is now one of the 80 airlines worldwide to have operated more than 100,000 flights in 2023, just bigger than Philippine Airlines and Aer Lingus.
2023 Scheduled Departures by Airline
The airline is built to fly smaller airplanes from Dubai to a variety of smaller cities within the Middle East, Africa, India, and Europe, even stretching beyond now that it has MAX aircraft with more range. Just look at this network map:
Unlike Emirates, flydubai is not built to be a premium-focused airline. Some of its airplanes are all-coach, with the 737-800 holding 189 onboard. (That, if you’re wondering, is 14 more seats than Southwest has on the same plane.) It does have a premium cabin on most airplanes with the MAX 8 ranging from 12 recliners up front and 162 in the back to the more luxurious configuration with 10 flat beds up front and 156 in the back. The biggest airplane it has is the 737-9 MAX — only three in the fleet so far — with 16 flat beds and 156 in the back.
In other words, flydubai is meant to handle less-premium markets that don’t have enough demand to fill an Emirates airplane even in coach. There are a lot of those markets from Dubai, but flydubai has also taken on a secondary role as the airline that can provide supplemental coach-heavy capacity in large markets that Emirates flies as well. In fact, 32 of flydubai’s destinations have service from both airlines this December.
As of today, flydubai has 80 airplanes in the fleet, and in 2023, those flew to 122 different destinations. For comparison, Southwest serves almost the same number of destinations (actually 121 according to Cirium data) but has over 800 airplanes in its fleet. So, flydubai is a very different kind of airline. Let’s put it this way.
Percent of Destinations by Daily Departures – December 2023
With that kind of strategy, flydubai could serve every city in the world if it had the range… a couple of times a day. Until yesterday, the airline had only ordered 737s, starting with an order for 50 back at launch. That was followed by another 86 a few years later and finally 225 in 2018. Not all of those will be in the fleet at the same time. I believe it is supposed to top out at 210ish 737s as of now, which is still more than double what the airline has today.
Of course, those 737s can serve a whole lot of the globe from centrally-located Dubai, but the airline can do more. So now, flydubai has picked up an order for 30 787-9s. I would assume these will be outfitted in a coach-heavy configuration as well, keeping consistent with the 737s in the fleet and maintaining the differentiation between it and Emirates.
The 787 will open up new destinations that extend beyond the range of the 737, yes. I can imagine going further into Southeast Asia (Philippines, Indonesia) and over to West Africa and beyond. This isn’t just about expansion, however. The 787 will be used on existing routes as well.
I assume the idea is something like the Dubai – Muscat route where flydubai operates a 7:10am and 8:20am departure along with a 10:20am and 11am flight. Those could be consolidated into a single 787 flight, though I’m skeptical that the economics would be better that way unless the airline goes really dense, which it very well should.
To see how this fits into the overall strategy of aviation in Dubai, we need to pair this with the big aircraft order from Emirates yesterday. Emirates will take an additional 55 777-9 aircraft with 35 777-8s. These are the bigger, newer versions of the 777 that are supposed to deliver sometime before the end of time… maybe? Regardless of when they show up, these are big airplanes, and that fits with the Emirates strategy.
More interesting, however, is the decision by Emirates to turn an order for 30 787-9s into 15 787-10s and 20 787-8s. The 787-8s are smaller than the 787-9 that flydubai will use which seems odd, but I bet you that those will be very premium-heavy and used for very specific routes where there is large premium demand even if overall demand isn’t that strong. It could also be used by Emirates to help create off-peak frequency in the markets where that kind of thing matters.
But back to flydubai, will this strategy actually work? Of course it will… because it’s Dubai, it always “works” one way or another. That being said, I like the simplicity of the single narrowbody fleet, but if flydubai can pack this full of seats to simulate the sardine experience, then it may very well work. That same kind of configuration can’t (won’t?) be done with the Emirates brand, so this may be the right way to serve the price-sensitive market that absolutely exists.