Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airline, was in the news recently when he said Emirates would prefer not to have a U.S. Customs and Border Protection post in Dubai.
On the surface, this seems like a surprising announcement.
A bit of background is in order. The U.S. has established customs posts in several countries including Ireland, Canada, some Caribbean nations and, most recently, Abu Dhabi. These allow people to clear immigration and customs before arriving in the United States. When the plane pulls up at the gate in the U.S., passengers can simply deplane and move on.
U.S. airline executives and union leaders attacked the recent move to open the Abu Dhabi base, claiming it would give the local carrier, Etihad, an unfair competitive advantage.
So is Emirates making a mistake?
I don’t think so. This is a smart decision by a savvy marketer.
Great brand builders know that experiences matter. If you have a great interaction with a brand, you tend to like it. The best brands, especially service brands, are built on a series of positive moments.
For Emirates, Dubai is critical; it is impossible to separate the Emirates brand from its enormous hub airport. When passengers move through Dubai smoothly they have a good experience. They also buy things at high prices. It strengthens the brand.
If passengers miss a connection or have to sprint through the terminal to catch a flight, they will be grumpy and frustrated and angry at both the Dubai airport and Emirates.
Dealing with U.S. border agents is generally not a positive experience. The lines are long. Times are unpredictable. People are stressed. If you are Emirates, you want to distance yourself from this operation as much as possible, especially because you have no control over it. Emirates can’t just dispatch some local gate agents to get people through U.S. immigration faster.
The way to build the Emirates brand is to give passengers a wonderful flying experience, including a smooth connection in a beautiful terminal in Dubai. Emirates should try to control every contact point. The last thing Emirates wants is a U.S. customs post creating stress and frustration.
When people arrive in the U.S. they might encounter a big line. This isn’t a problem for Emirates; passengers will blame the United States, not Emirates.
Emirates is a very successful and fast growing airline. One reason is that its executives know how to build a great brand.