02/13/2011 11:47 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Emirates Airlines' Ambition Scares Its Competition

Emirates is pressing ahead with an ambitious expansion, despite the city's financial near-collapse in 2009. Its executives, with the help of Dubai's rulers, want to place this Persian Gulf city at the center of a transportation network linking vibrant economies like India and China to Europe and the United States.

It might sound like bravado from the bubble years, another case of overreach in this sandy fantasyland. This is, after all, Dubai, where exuberant developers planned not one but three palm-shaped island chains and erected the glass-clad Burj Khalifa -- more than twice the height of the Empire State Building -- alongside an indoor ski resort. What is more, the recent political upheaval in Egypt provides a potent reminder that Dubai, for all its air-conditioned ease and stability, lives in a dangerous neighborhood.

But here inside Terminal 3, the rise of Emirates hardly seems a mirage. Since its founding in 1985, Emirates, which is fully owned by the government, has grown into the world's largest airline by passenger miles flown. By 6:30 a.m., Terminal 3 is teeming with travelers. Russians bound for Durban, Chinese headed for Khartoum and Indians traveling to San Francisco weave through the restaurants and duty-free shops. Families snooze on the white marble floors. It feels like a giant bazaar, devoted to a new era of air travel: crowded, animated, cosmopolitan.