Dubai airport hits pre-Covid quarterly passenger levels for first time since 2020

Traveller numbers surged 176% to 18.5 million in the third quarter, up from 6.7 million in the same period in 2021

The Terminal 3 Arrivals Hall at Dubai International Airport. Photo: Dubai Airports
Powered by automated translation

Dubai Airports, the operator of Dubai International Airport, raised its annual passenger forecast again after the Gulf hub reached pre-coronavirus quarterly traffic levels between July and September 2022.

Dubai International Airport handled 18.5 million passengers in the third quarter, more than doubling year on year, Dubai Airports said on Tuesday.

This was first time that quarterly traffic reached pre-pandemic levels since 2020, with the figure higher than the 17.8 million passengers who travelled through the airport in the first quarter of 2020 before the onset of Covid-19.

The airport recorded average monthly traffic exceeding the six million mark throughout the third quarter.

“The recovery has been steeper than expected and … our strategy of maintaining the right resources and deploying them in the right place and right time seems to have paid off,” Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai Airports, told The National.

“Other airports around the world that have cut deep into their resources are finding it very difficult to get back to full strength.

“We are now seeing more visitors to and from Dubai than ever before … what we have seen is significant growth from Flydubai — that has been a big driver of it, they are well over 100 per cent of their pre-pandemic passenger and flight numbers — and also international airlines are performing better than [they did] pre-pandemic.”

Dubai government safety measures, cooler weather, a growing list of tourist attractions and people's desire to travel after two years of lockdowns are among other factors making Dubai an attractive destination for visitors, Mr Griffiths said.

The recovery at the airport, a hub for Emirates airline, continued, with strong travel demand registered during the peak summer season as international borders reopened and coronavirus restrictions eased.

The Gulf hub benefitted from running smooth operations, compared with some major European airports that were left reeling from delays that caused widespread disruption as demand roared back after the pandemic.

Annual passenger forecast

Dubai Airports said it now expects 64.3 million passengers to travel through Dubai International Airport in 2022, about 3 per cent more than its last annual forecast in August of 62.4 million passengers, after a strong third quarter and expectations of surging volumes in the last three months of the year, it said.

“The sentiment for the fourth quarter is pretty good,” Mr Griffiths said.

“We have had more than six million passengers per month in the second half and at peak times, if the numbers go to seven million, we will be in unchartered territory in terms of record passenger numbers.

“We normally get 7.6 million on a busy month, so, hopefully, we will go back to those numbers fairly shortly.”

A full recovery in passenger traffic to 2019 levels, when 86.4 million passengers used the airport, could come a year earlier than expected amid the strong rebound in travel, said Mr Griffiths.

“We have been quite conservative and have raised our annual passenger forecast many times over the last few months. So, if that trend continues, we could perhaps be back and exceeding pre-pandemic levels as early as next year,” he said.


The changing face of Dubai International Airport, over 50 years — in pictures


In the first nine months of 2022, Dubai International Airport handled 46.3 million passengers, an annual increase of 167.6 per cent, Dubai Airports said.

The traffic volume so far this year represents 72 per cent of the airport's pre-pandemic passenger traffic during the same period in 2019.

Point-to-point travel at the airport is exceeding pre-pandemic levels and compensating for a slower-than-expected recovery in transit traffic in some markets, Mr Griffiths said.

“Transit traffic is still slightly hampered by the extended recovery cycle in places like China and the Far East that are not coming back as quickly as we would like,” he said.

“There is a shortage of capacity in those markets and the numbers are not where we would like them to be.”

China made up about 2 per cent to 3 per cent of Dubai International Airport's overall traffic in a normal year.

The airport has 238 unique destinations in 98 countries, with 90 international airlines serving the hub currently.

“The traditional markets that have always been strong to and from Dubai are performing the best out of our entire group,” Mr Griffiths said.

India was Dubai International Airport's top source country once again in terms of traffic volume, recording 6.8 million passengers in the first nine months of the year.

Saudi Arabia was second with 3.4 million passengers, followed by the UK (3.2 million passengers) and Pakistan (2.7 million passengers).

Other notable country markets were the US and Australia with 2.2 million and 1.1 million passengers, respectively.

The top three cities by traffic were London, Riyadh and Mumbai.

Dubai World Central, the emirate's second hub, is currently operating up to 120 shuttle flights daily to carry World Cup fans between Dubai and Doha, which will lift its passenger throughput to “a few million”, Mr Griffiths said.

Travel outlook 'healthy' despite economic headwinds

However, Mr Griffiths said the outlook for travel demand remains upbeat despite global economic headwinds.

“Air travel has become so much a part of our DNA that it would not be regarded as too much of a discretionary spend because people will continue to want to travel,” he said.

“They may be cost-sensitive about the way they travel but I do think travel projections remain quite healthy and bullish.”

Capacity is constrained after airlines retired older aircraft during the pandemic and struggling to hire and train pilots and cabin crew after cutting jobs during the crisis, Mr Griffiths said.

On the other hand, demand for travel is quite strong after two years of lockdowns, he added.

“So, we have got a real bubble of supply and a tightness of demand,” he said. “There is a shortage of seats and that is why airline pricing is so astronomic.”

Air cargo volumes

Air cargo volumes at the airport were affected by the move of all major freight operators from Dubai International Airport back to DWC in March, Dubai Airports said.

Dubai International Airport recorded 397,676 tonnes of freight in the third quarter, bringing the total volume for the first nine months of 2022 to 1,307,691 tonnes, an annual drop of 23.3 per cent as demand softened, Dubai Airports said.

Cargo demand is also rationalising from the peak reached during the pandemic as passenger jets that airlines had converted to freight aircraft at the time are now changed back to carry people as travel demand rebounds, Mr Griffiths said.

Updated: November 22, 2022, 8:50 AM