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Dubai wants to build the biggest airport in the world. Here’s how that’s going

by Staff

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A little more than 10 years ago, in October 2013, a Wizz Air A320 arriving from Budapest made headlines by becoming the first commercial passenger flight ever to touch down at Al Maktoum International Airport, also known as Dubai World Central (DWC).

This brand new “greenfield” airport some 20 miles southwest of downtown Dubai was designed to become, in a not-so-distant future, the world’s largest and busiest. The vision was – and still is – for a futuristic mega-hub, ensuring that the emirate’s role as a major node of the global economy doesn’t run into capacity problems anytime soon.

Dubai Airports, the airport authority that manages both Dubai International (DXB) and the new airport, promises that when Al Maktoum International is finished, it‘ll be able to handle more than 160 million passengers per year as well as 12 million tonnes of freight.

To put that in perspective, that’s nearly 63 million more travelers than the world’s current busiest airport, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International, handled in 2022 and nearly 100 million more than Dubai International. DXB, let’s not forget, is already the world’s busiest airport outside of the US and Dubai’s main international gateway.

However, a decade and a pandemic after that initial passenger flight, and a full 13 years since it first opened for cargo operations, Dubai’s newest airport is still very much a work in progress.

DWC has found a role as a center for aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul – “MRO” in industry parlance. It also hosts a number of air cargo operators (including Emirates Cargo, the freight subsidiary of the UAE flag carrier) and handles executive jets and some charter flights.

Scheduled passenger services, however, are limited to those provided by a handful of low-cost carriers that operate services mostly to Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia.

So what’s been happening with those ambitious plans? And when might we see a timeline or new designs?

philipus/Alamy Stock Photo

Al Maktoum International currently only handles a limited number of commercial passenger flights.

The recent Dubai Air Show, held at a purpose-built venue at Al Maktoum International Airport in 2023, offered some intriguing hints about what’s ahead for DWC – and some insights into Dubai Airports’ long-term strategy.

“We have prioritized expansion and investments at DXB to meet our customers’ requirements and plans,” Paul Griffiths, Dubai Airports CEO, tells CNN. “This will continue until all possible capacity is absorbed.”

The plan is to maximize current capacity through “the application of innovative technology and refurbishments to rethink the use of space,” says Griffiths, adding another 20 million passengers to DXB’s current annual capacity of 100 million passengers.

“This expansion will not only accommodate near-term growth but also provide us with additional time to strategize for the phased expansion of DWC. Our passenger forecasts for 2023 stand at 86.8 million, with projections of 88.2 million and 93.8 million for 2024 and 2025, respectively,” he adds.

Griffiths has been careful not to confirm a timeline, but in November 2023 he told the AFP news agency that when capacity is reached “we are going to need a new airport […] That is going to have to happen at some stage during the 2030s.”

“DWC is a thrilling prospect,” Griffiths told CNN in January this year. “The future Phase 2 development represents a significant opportunity, allowing us to build from the ground up in alignment with Dubai’s broader goals and growth plans.”

Griffiths told reporters at the air show that designs are already being produced for the new mega-airport, but the massive, three-dimensional scale model displayed at the event, with its six parallel runways and three gigantic terminals, is already some years outdated.

Dubai Airports

New artist renderings haven’t been released in a decade, but Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths says the team will soon be working on ambitious new designs.

However, Griffiths has hinted to Business Traveller magazine about an intriguing modular approach to gradually expand DWC on a timeline that might run into the 2050s. “We are not planning an airport that has terminals,” he said. “We’re going to completely change the business model for airports, make them actually far more intimate, and get rid of all the legacy processes that we’ve had to subject our customers to, for far too long.”

The airport will be the centerpiece of a much larger scheme, called Dubai South, that envisages the creation of a whole new city in a 145-square-kilometer stretch of desert just south of Dubai.

This entire new district, of which some pieces are already starting to take shape, will have eight neighborhoods each allocated to a specific industry or activity, with a mix of residential and commercial areas as well.

With the airport at the heart of the action, it will form a complete “aerotropolis”. The Mohammed bin Rashid (MBR) Aerospace Hub, which will host Dubai’s burgeoning aviation and aerospace industrial ecosystem, including the recently announced $950 million Emirates engineering center, will be playing a very prominent role in this vision.

The real turning point, however, will come the day local giant Emirates and its smaller partner, flyDubai, relocate to the new airport from their current home at Dubai International. This move has long been on the cards, but it has no known timeframe yet.

According to Nadine Itani, program leader for air transport management at the University of Surrey in England, Emirates’ shift to DWC is more than a relocation.

“It’s a strategic realignment in response to the changing dynamics of the global air travel and trade market,” says the aviation expert, who notes that Dubai’s bet on DWC as a future mega-hub is not an isolated move. There is currently a race in the region to invest in new, large-scale airport facilities and no one wants to lag behind.

The region’s flag carriers are not only keen to claim their share of global travel flows and position their capital cities as international trade centers, but also, increasingly, to establish themselves as tourist destinations in their own right. Shiny new airports will support these efforts.

“There has been a notable shift in the incoming traffic mix into Dubai with a decrease in connecting passengers and an increase in terminating passengers, coupled with the anticipated surge in transport and logistics activity due to Dubai’s role in the planned trade agreements such as the [India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor],” says Itani.

Inaugurated as recently as 2014, Hamad International Airport in nearby Qatar, a direct competitor of Dubai in the long-haul connectivity market, is gearing to expand its capacity to more than 60 million annual passengers.

This adds to other airport expansion projects in the region: the opening of a $1.8 billion brand new airport in Muscat, Oman, in 2018, the $1.1 billion new terminal in Bahrain in 2021 and, more recently, in November 2023, of Abu Dhabi’s grand new Terminal A, a 780,000-square-meter facility able to handle up to 79 aircraft simultaneously.

At the northern end of the Gulf, Kuwait International Airport is building a new terminal designed by renowned British architectural firm Foster+Partners, which will have the capacity to handle 25 million passengers per year initially, with the possibility of doubling it up to 50 million in the future.

And less than 20 miles from Dubai’s downtown, Sharjah International Airport, which is primarily home to low-cost carrier Air Arabia, is also increasing its capacity to 20 million passengers annually.

Saudi Arabia is also readying a massive airport expansion as part of its 2030 Vision, which has allocated $100 billion to prop up the kingdom’s air connectivity and turn it into one of the world’s top tourist destinations.

In addition to a new international airline, Riyadh Air, the Saudi capital is also getting a gigantic new airport. Riyadh’s new six-runway airport will, in fact, be built at the same location as the current one, fully replacing it. It will have capacity for 185 million passengers per year, or almost seven times the number it handled in 2022.

When it comes to claiming the top spot in the global airport league tables, the stakes are higher than ever.

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