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Emirates Airline reaches for the stars in L.A. launch

The Dubai carrier celebrates new service with a Hollywood bash

October 29, 2008|Peter Pae | Pae is a Times staff writer.

The world's fastest-growing airline -- and one of the most extravagant -- began nonstop flights between Los Angeles and Dubai this week, and tonight it will throw one of the more lavish Hollywood parties of the season.

Despite global economic turmoil, Emirates Airline, based in the hyper-developing Persian Gulf city of Dubai, is expected to spend more than $3 million for the bash at the Kodak Theatre, hosted by Hilary Swank and featuring an hourlong concert by Ricky Martin. A four-course dinner is being prepared by Wolfgang Puck.

The start of flights to Los Angeles International Airport is the latest link in a growing Dubai connection that has included an investment fund controlled by Dubai's ruling family taking a 45% stake in Eli Broad's multibillion-dollar Grand Avenue project in downtown Los Angeles.

A Dubai firm also now owns Newport Beach-based John Laing Homes, which was the nation's second-largest privately held home builder when it was acquired in 2006. Dubai investors have been quietly buying into Southland projects since a political firestorm two years ago killed a Dubai-based company's plans to operate some of the United States' largest seaports.

More recently, Dubai has been courting Hollywood in a big way. DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. is helping build the world's largest entertainment complex in Dubai, a 107-square-mile play zone that will include 40 theme parks and 50 hotels.

It would be more than twice the size of Disney World in Florida and would involve park designers from Universal Studios and Six Flags Inc.

Last weekend, the airline was a major sponsor of the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, where three horses owned by the ruling family won races. The horses arrived at LAX in a private Boeing 747 jumbo jet that has 20 specially built stalls.

On Tuesday, a Bush administration official told business leaders in the oil-rich gulf region that the battered U.S. economy was open to more investment by government-owned funds and other investors.

Speaking at the Dubai Financial Center during a five-country tour of the region, Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt said he was meeting with investment fund managers, companies and other financial institutions to promote the U.S. as an investment destination, the Associated Press reported.

Since the port controversy in 2006, "much has changed, and changed for the good," Kimmitt said.

Meanwhile, at a news conference Tuesday at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, a Los Angeles city official called the new Emirates Airline service "a catalyst" for new business and trade relations between L.A. and Dubai.

"We're already seeing the strength of that relationship in the entertainment industry," said Dario Gomez, the city's director for international trade.

The Emirates Airline news conference included a sampling of food that is served in first- and business-class cabins, including lobster and rack of lamb.

The airline, owned by the Dubai government and run by the uncle of the ruler, has been an extension of Dubai's ambitions and aims to be the world's largest by 2015.

Emirates now operates a fleet of more than 120 long-haul, wide-body jets. Until the nearly two-month strike by Boeing Co. factory workers, the airline got a new plane -- typically costing $200 million to $300 million each -- about every two weeks.

The airline has additional orders coming for more than 200 planes worth $60 billion. It is the biggest buyer of the $350-million, double-decked Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger jet.

Tonight's star-studded party is a way for Dubai to project an over-the-top image even as the city is showing the first signs of growing pains from its outsized goals, according to industry experts.

Dubai is one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.

A tiny fishing village at the turn of the 20th century, Dubai has grown rapidly and is now home to many superlatives, including the world's largest indoor ski slope, biggest shopping mall and tallest building.

There are so many construction cranes crowding the landscape, residents jokingly call them Dubai's national bird.

But the global downturn may be cooling Dubai's building boom. After years of double-digit growth, passenger volume among Middle Eastern carriers declined nearly 3% in September compared with a year ago, the first drop since the 2003 Asian bird-flu epidemic that hurt air travel.

Despite a general decrease in global traffic, Emirates officials said the airline was still "seeing strong demand in forward bookings."

"We're really bullish" about the Los Angeles service, said Keith Longstaff, Emirates' senior vice president for commercial operations. The airline plans to increase service from three flights a week to daily as soon as it gets another new plane that has been delayed by the Boeing strike.

The 16-hour nonstop flight is particularly appealing to Los Angeles business travelers because it's at least six hours shorter than what they're used to. "We can't wait to start daily service," Longstaff said.

The Emirates gala tonight is part of the airline's usual promotional fanfare whenever it starts new service to a city.

Last year, Emirates celebrated the start of Dubai-to-Houston service with a bash at the Houston Astros' Minute Maid Park, at which Cindy Crawford was host and Kenny Rogers the singer. Tom Jones headlined the start of Dubai-to-New York service, and Bryan Adams rocked the crowd in Toronto.

"They know how to throw a party," said Wido Schaefer, chief executive of Brentwood-based TravelStore USA, who's been to other private parties hosted by Emirates. "They're pulling out all the stops."

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peter.pae@latimes.com

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