Dubai: Today, hearing that somebody is an airline’s 100,000th or millionth passenger is not that unusual. But coming across someone called the very first passenger is a rare occurrence.
For Abdul Rahman Mohammad Aqil Al Zarouni, a UAE national, it was 30 years ago today that he had this distinctive honour on-board Emirates’ inaugural flight to Karachi, Pakistan.
“I was Emirates’ first passenger,” Al Zarouni said. “I was issued the airline’s first ticket as well as boarding pass, and was also the first to check in.”
The 57-year-old Emirati, who lives a stone’s throw away from Dubai International airport, still holds a certificate from Emirates signed by Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubail Civil Aviation and Chairman and CEO of Emirates airline and Group. “I was the only person to whom Emirates issued that certificate,” a beaming Al Zarouni says.
On the day, Al Zarouni flew economy on EK600 on a Boeing 737-300 two-class configuration aircraft carrying 133 passengers.
“At exactly 11.45am, the first flight from Dubai International airport took off for Karachi,” he recalled. “The journey lasted approximately an hour-and-a-half.”
Interestingly, he was not flying to Karachi on business or vacation.
“I didn’t fly on that plane because I wanted to go to Karachi. I bought a ticket purely because I wanted to be on the first-ever Emirates flight,” Al Zarouni said.
“I was a proud Emirati flying [on] my country’s first airline. And I couldn’t feel more honoured today when I see the heights Emirates has scaled in the last three decades. That was my way of showing support to my country’s first airline.”
The only thing he can’t quite recall is the exact price of the ticket then, which he believes to have been around “Dh800 or so” for a return ticket.
“I was only 27 years old then. It’s difficult to remember everything now,” Al Zarouni says coyly, adding that until today he has treasured his Emirates boarding pass. “Of course, it is all faded now and is almost like a blank white card.”
But what he does remember clearly is travelling on the same flight with all of Emirates’ top management team, led by Shaikh Ahmad, and all of whom were seated in the Business class.
“That’s the reason I couldn’t fly Business class on the day,” he said.
Emirates, now the world’s largest carrier by international passenger numbers, was established with a capital of just $10 million (Dh36.7 million) and a small team of professionals. It began operating with two aircraft leased from Pakistan International Airlines — a new Boeing single-aisle aircraft and an Airbus A300B4-200.
Dubai airport back then was small and hardly crowded, Al Zarouni said.
“And in a few years even Al Maktoum International at the Dubai World Central will be full. It is hard to imagine that an airline which started with a couple of leased aircraft 30 years ago is today the world’s largest,” he said
Al Zarouni, a government employee who has been with the Dubai Health Authority for the last 33 years, continues to fly Emirates at least two to three times each year.
The airline’s meteoric growth during the period has left him in awe. Emirates carried 49.3 million passengers in the last financial year that ended in March. Its fleet of 241 aircraft flies to 147 cities in 79 countries and territories. And the airline has 267 additional aircraft on order, valued at $129 billion at list prices.
“It’s not that there were no airlines in this region before Emirates launched services. There were Gulf Air, Kuwait Airways and Saudia,” Al Zarouni said.
“Emirates took to skies much after them. And see where they are today and where Emirates is,” he added.
“I sometime fly with other international airlines too but Emirates feels like home. You just cannot compare the experience.”
Peculiarly, though, Al Zarouni waited for Emirates to turn 30 to tell his story. And he has a modest explanation for that: “I just got busy with my work... I also run my own business alongside [that]. So I just never found the time.”
But Dubai has always been number one in everything for Al Zarouni.
“And this was my chance to be number one,” he said with a proud smile.