I looked out of the plane window as we flew over the Arabian Gulf. Dubai’s famous landmarks slowly came into view: first the Palm Jumeirah, then the Burj Khalifa. We flew over the glittering city and then descended over the rolling sand dunes of the desert.
This wasn’t just any flight. It was the inaugural flight for United Airlines’ nonstop service from Newark, New Jersey, to Dubai. With this route, United is now the only U.S. carrier to fly directly from the U.S. to the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates. (United previously had a direct flight between Washington, D.C. and Dubai, which was cancelled in 2016, according to Reuters).
The milestone flight is an expansion of United’s partnership with Emirates, which the airlines first announced last autumn. The partnership gives both Emirates and United passengers access to more destinations through a single booking. Since last year, Emirates passengers flying to Chicago, Houston and San Francisco have been able to connect to more than 200 U.S. cities through United. Now, with the debut of non-stop service to Dubai, United passengers can travel to more than 100 destinations from Dubai via Emirates or its sister airline Flydubai.
“It’s important to have metal in the marketplace,” Patrick Quayle, United’s senior vice president of global network planning and alliances, told Travel + Leisure before boarding the Dubai flight. “It’s really about creating an opportunity for our passengers to have the ability to fly United … it’s really symbolic to have a United aircraft going there.”
After boarding for the 13-and-a-half-hour flight, I settled into United’s Polaris business class. The flight departed at 9:40 p.m., and I enjoyed a late-night dinner. Later, I watched the airline’s famous sundae cart roll down the aisle – served by none other than an apron-wearing Quayle himself – before turning my seat into a bed for a few hours’ sleep.
As a bonus, United handed out commemorative pyjamas and orange and cardamom baklava to celebrate the inaugural flight. The airline also gave each passenger a box of dates when we landed.
But direct flights to Dubai are not United’s end game. It’s just one part of its 2023 expansion plan. In May, the airline will launch a brand-new flight from its Newark hub to Malaga, Spain. It will also resume flights to Stockholm (also from Newark) for the first time since 2019. United is also adding new flights to destinations it already serves, connecting San Francisco and Rome, Washington, D.C. and Berlin, and more.
“We’re looking at more expansion, we’re looking at some new cities, and we’re looking at connecting existing dots,” Quayle told T+L. “It’s really like baking a cake: there are all these different ingredients, and you have to mix them appropriately [to get] a great result.”
Last year, United added five new destinations in its largest-ever transatlantic expansion: Amman, Jordan; Bergen, Norway; the Azores, Portugal; Palma de Mallorca, Spain; and Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands.
And Quayle says the airline isn’t done yet. “This has been our strategy for a long time,” he said. “What I have found is that breadth is important, so having a wide range of destinations is important.”
Once on the ground in Dubai, I made my way through the city’s stunning architecture and bright lights that made it feel alive and humming after dark. I checked into my room at the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai and walked to the window, looking down at the city lights from my room on the 48th floor.
I took in the glowing Burj Al Arab, lit green that night, and spotted Atlantis, The Palm in the distance. Standing there, I could see why Dubai was on United’s list and couldn’t wait to explore more.