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Flying to the United Arab Emirates

Not many Americans think of Dubai as a weekend getaway, but I do. For a visit last February, I flew nonstop from New York for 13 hours aboard the state-owned carrier Emirates, which bumped me up to business class and offered me a tour of first, where the seats have 19-inch screens, private mini-bars, and even their own doors—each a self-enclosed pod. Two days later, I was in the back of the Airbus with what felt like half of Mumbai, chewing on a dosa at 4:30 a.m. and e-mailing friends from above the Nile.

In the next six years, Emirates aims to amass the world's largest fleet of long- haul aircraft. With 55 Airbus A380 "superjumbos" and 51 Boeing 777's on order, the carrier is spearheading a regional effort to funnel two-thirds of flights between Europe and Asia through the Persian Gulf and to become America's gateway to India.

The fact that Dubai's airline aspires to have the biggest, fastest-growing, and most profitable fleet on earth isn't surprising when you consider the state's outsize ambitions. But local jealousy and Emirates' phenomenal success have inspired the rulers of nearby Qatar and Abu Dhabi to bulk up their own national carriers. Both Qatar Airways and Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways—the youngest of the group—have purchased A380's of their own, and all three carriers are in a race to woo affluent travelers with new and improved business- and first-class products.

"There's never been this much concentration of planes in such a small area," Kirk Albrow, Etihad's general manager for Europe and the Americas, says. "And with airplanes that can fly 15 hours nonstop, you can go anywhere in the world from here. We've redrawn the map."

The Boston Consulting Group issued a report in September 2006 describing these Mideast carriers collectively as a significant threat to other airlines. Working with a combination of low operating costs, cheap labor pools, tax-free home bases, and strong support for tourism promotion, the Mideast airlines intend to undercut prices and over-deliver on the experience, transforming layovers into luxury stays with vacation packages in rain-free, tax-free resorts. Most of Dubai's manmade Palm islands and the first phase of the colossal Dubailand theme park are expected to be completed within a decade, and Abu Dhabi is hoping for the Bilbao effect, when star-chitects Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, and Tadao Ando unveil a quartet of world-class museums.

Those attractions are expected to draw an increasing number of Americans. Emirates has three daily flights between New York and Dubai and is launching service to Houston in December, and there are rumors that it is also eyeing San Francisco and Chicago. Etihad has flights to New York and Toronto, and Qatar began service to New York and Washington, D.C., this summer.

That business-class seat I was nestled in during my flight to Dubai is already obsolete. Emirates unveiled a new fully flat business-class seat that's available on nonstop flights to JFK, and the first-class suites are rolling out across most of the fleet within the next 18 months. Etihad has responded with a first-class suite that pivots 180 degrees, so that a foursome can dine together on a full-size table. Planes to New York also include a small lounge. Qatar Airways eschews the gimmicks in favor of top-flight service—it's one of only five airlines to have received a five-star rating from the Web site Skytrax (airlinequality.com), which evaluates carriers on hundreds of criteria.

The most critical obstacle that may halt the rise of these Mideast airlines is a lack of planes. Crippling delays to the A380 because of wiring difficulties (now resolved) are threatening to ground Emirates' expansion plans. The airline won't take receipt of its first new plane until 2008, when it was already supposed to have 18 more in the air. Meanwhile, Qatar Airways has ordered 80 A350's, Airbus's rival to Boeing's 787 Dreamliner. But while the Dreamliner debuts in May 2008, the first A350's won't be ready until 2013. All three carriers will need to keep looking over their shoulders until then. ✚

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