WHEN the airline Emirates began operations in 1985 it only had two leased aircraft and three destinations on the Indian sub-continent. The odds were stacked against it becoming a serious challenger to the world's big name airlines. Now, Emirates is the fastest-growing international carrier, operating a modern fleet of 15 aircraft from Dubai to 32 destinations in the Middle East, West Asia, Europe and the Pacific Rim. It has also won a host of awards. The international airline of the United Arab Emirates has made a big impact in the Far East and is providing unexpected competition for long established airlines flying from Hong Kong to Europe. Emirates now flies seven times a week between Hong Kong and Dubai and offers connecting flights to major cities on its network, including London and Manchester. It also flies daily to Singapore. Group managing director Maurice Flanagan said: ''We have got to be good, look good and make money, because the cold wind of competition is always there. ''An important part of the airline's development has been to find external sources of financing for rapid fleet expansion at a time when the industry is in recession.'' Emirates' chairman, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, said: ''We regard the backing we have received from major international lending institutions as an international vote of confidence in Emirates' future.'' The airline's inflight service is nosing ahead of that of competitors, with the recent introduction of telephones on board with satellite links, and individual screens for video channels for every passenger in all three classes on long-haul flights. It is the first airline in the world to offer a personal video service for all. Capitalising on Dubai's pivotal geographical position, Emirates is planning ahead into the next century, and from March 1996 will take delivery of seven next-generation Boeing 777s, with options on seven more. The airline has won 41 international awards for its passenger and cargo services, inflight food, inflight magazine and on-board entertainment. Seven awards have been won this year alone. Awards include the Passenger Service Award from Air Transport World; Best Economy Class in the World and Best Carrier to the Middle East (the latter for five successive years) from the United Kingdom's leading business monthly, Executive Travel. Passengers in all three classes on long-haul flights can choose from around 33 hours of personal video entertainment. In first class, passengers also have a library of 33 movies. An hour-long television programme caters for children, who are also given fun packs and become members of the airline's Skyriders' Club. Emirates' menus in all three classes offer dishes created by the airline's guest chef, Bernard Gaume, executive chef at the Hyatt Carlton Tower in London. Disabled passengers are provided with two extra-large toilets and special wheelchairs are being installed on all aircraft for use in the cabins. Escorts are also provided for unaccompanied minors with one additional cabin crew added if more than 10 unescorted children are on a flight. The cabin crew comprise a total of 44 different nationalities, and there are invariably five or six languages spoken on any one flight. Emirates' Sky Cargo, the airline's award-winning freight division, claims to provide a fast, efficient export link with a state-of-the-art operating base. Through its computerised reservation system, Emirates can provide instant space confirmation and reservations, including through-bookings on other airlines. Shippers can obtain an immediate report on the status of their freight anywhere on the network. European manufacturers are stepping up exports to the Middle East, using Dubai as a distribution hub, while Far East cargo air-freighted to Europe, via Dubai, is increasing. Emirates' Holidays, the vacation management division of Emirates, offers a comprehensive range of holiday programmes to 23 destinations. There is a range of 174 holiday programmes, including short city breaks, beach holidays, overland tours, sports, fly-drive, cruises and adventure trips. Though Dubai is an international trading centre, it is increasingly being seen as a holiday destination. Emirates' holidays include golfing, dhow cruises, trips to oases, mountain safaris, camping in the desert Bedu-style and ''wadi-bashing'', four-wheel-drive trips through the rolling dunes. One of Emirates' more unusual holidays is a two-day course in desert driving.