Dubai airport remains busiest hub for global travel, with 29.1 million passengers in 2021

Dubai International Airport exceeded annual passenger traffic forecast of 28.7 million on strong fourth quarter

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Dubai International Airport recorded a 12.7 per cent increase in annual passenger traffic in 2021, driven by a strong fourth quarter to beat its own forecast and retain the title of the world's busiest international hub for the eighth consecutive year.

The airport, the base for Emirates airline and a key source of revenue for Dubai, handled 29.1 million passengers last year, exceeding its forecast of 28.7 million, operator Dubai Airports said on Tuesday.

"It's been the toughest two years in our entire history, there's been no event that's been so extended as the global pandemic," Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai Airports, told The National.

"So to be able to say with some confidence that this is at last behind us, is a very good position to be able to take, so I'm very happy with that outcome."

The rise in passenger traffic last year received a boost in the last three months, when the airport handled 11.8 million passengers, 77 per cent more than in the previous quarter.

It was the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic that DXB’s quarterly traffic surpassed the 10-million mark. December was the busiest month of the year with 4.5 million passengers.

Dubai Airports is projecting the number of passengers who will pass through the international airport by the end of 2022 to double to 57 million, amid the reopening of key markets and as more countries relaxing PCR-testing rules for vaccinated passengers, said Mr Griffiths, who has run state-owned Dubai Airports since 2007.

"A big market for us, Australia with 2.8 million customers a year, is now open for visitors which is extremely good news," he said.

"Testing will start to recede as a requirement for travel, it's a difficult thing to satisfy: it's very expensive and a lot of people are put off from travelling because of the testing regime; because they worry about testing positive in an overseas destination and being stuck," he said.

"It's a very powerful disincentive to travel, which is now finally being let off and people can finally plan with some confidence to travel."

The UK no longer requires vaccinated passengers to provide a negative Covid test result, while Bahrain earlier this month said arrivals will no longer need to be tested.

Dubai's second hub, Al Maktoum International Airport or DWC, is scheduled to reopen its passenger terminal on May 4 for commercial flights for the first time since the pandemic started, Mr Griffiths said.

The hub will handle some passenger flights during the 45-day period of refurbishments scheduled at Dubai International Airport, which will close one of its two runways.

"It's quite likely that we will continue to operate capacity in the passenger terminal building through the summer because I think demand will suggest that's appropriate," he said.

"The agreement when we closed it was that all the carriers that operated from DWC will relocate to DXB and the idea is that once it reopens is that they will move back there to allow carriers at DXB to grow," he said.

Forward bookings for the summer starting in May onwards are surging as travel confidence improves.

"I've not seen the sort of levels of advance bookings so early on that we're seeing now," Mr Griffiths said. "It's supported by the fact that Dubai as a destination has surged in popularity over the course of the last couple of years."

Dubai Airports' official passenger traffic forecast this year of 55.1 million, which is 63 per cent of 2019, may be "conservative" given the strong forward bookings and recovery in travel demand, he said.

The forecast for 2022 remains below the pre-pandemic levels of 86.4 million travellers in 2019, when home carrier Emirates was growing its global network of long-haul routes.

Mr Griffiths expects a recovery to pre-Covid levels may take until the end of 2023.

Asked about the impact of the Ukraine-Russia crisis, he said the direct effect is "very slight" as the Ukraine is a small market for DXB but there are concerns that an escalation may have indirect reverberations on travel.

"It's the secondary impact, if it shapes confidence, or forces people to think again, or causes economic hardship because stock markets don't respond well to threats of global tensions, then obviously that's not going to be good news," he said. "So we do hope things will de-escalate because as we're recovering from the longest period of constraint on mobility of people worldwide ... the last thing we need is another crisis to deal with."

Mr Griffiths said that while rising oil prices are a positive development for hydrocarbon-based economies in the GCC, they represent higher fuel costs for airlines as they recover from the impact of the pandemic.

In 2021, India retained its position as the top destination country for DXB last year by passenger volume, with traffic totalling 4.2 million, followed by Pakistan with 1.8 million, Saudi Arabia with 1.5 million and the UK with 1.2 million passengers.

Other destination countries of note include the US (1.1 million), Egypt (1 million) and Turkey (945,000 passengers).

DXB’s top destination cities during 2021 were Istanbul with 916,000 passengers, followed by Cairo (905,000), London (814,000) and New Delhi (791,000).

The airport currently serves 198 destinations across 93 countries through 84 international airlines — "significantly more" than in 2019 before the pandemic, Dubai Airports said.

The number of flights handled in 2021 rose 28.1 per cent year-on-year to 233,375. The average number of passengers per flight dropped 18.9 per cent year-on-year to 154.

Air cargo volumes in 2021 continued to grow, rising 20 per cent to 2.3 million tonnes.

Increased passenger traffic has also buoyed airport retail sales. Dubai Duty Free annual sales surged 40 per cent to Dh3.56 billion ($970 million) in 2021.

It forecasts annual sales will increase 40 per cent to Dh5.1bn in 2022 and plans to recall more of its staff laid off during the Covid-19 pandemic as passenger traffic through the world's busiest international airport continue to grow.

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Updated: February 22, 2022, 10:47 AM