Dubai, the travel and tourism hub of the Middle East, is nearing a decision on the expansion of its second hub Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC) amid a boom in air travel demand following the pandemic, aviation industry officials said.
Asked when Emirates could potentially move its operations to DWC, airline president Tim Clark said: "The government is fairly close to making a decision on that.”
Moving the airline's mammoth operations to DWC would require a major expansion of passenger facilities at the emirate's second airport.
“If we have our way, it would be built by 2032-2033,” Mr Clark said on Tuesday at a press briefing in Istanbul on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association (Iata).
Dubai Airports, the state-owned operator of Dubai International Airport and DWC, is in talks with aviation stakeholders to determine the timetable of the project, its boss said.
An expansion of DWC to accommodate the airline's growth is “definitely needed” as airlines will outgrow capacity at Dubai International Airport “at some stage” but the precise timing remains an open question, Paul Griffiths, Dubai Airports chief executive, told The National at the Iata meeting.
“We will need a new terminal at DWC but the affordability of it, when we will need it, the capacity it needs to be – these are very much open questions based on the forecast of how quickly Emirates, flydubai and other airlines are going to grow over the next decade,” Mr Griffiths said.
“We can't answer that with any precision at the moment because those three key elements – the airlines' growth forecast, how much the [terminal] is going to cost and what the ultimate design capacity needs to be – that will determine the timing," he said.
“We are talking through this with Emirates, flydubai and our infrastructure partners at the moment and once we've got the answers to all those quite complex questions, we will be making an announcement about the timescale.”
The expansion plan will drive investment into a “phased project that will give us capacity flow over decades that we can build in modular stages, so that's very much still on the agenda to be determined”, he said.
The new project will be in addition to the existing passenger terminal at DWC, which has a capacity of about 5 million to 7 million people.
“To get the best out of DWC phase two with its multiple runways, we will need to build a passenger and concourse facility in the centre as per the master plan, which was originally put together in around 2014,” Mr Griffiths said.
The emirate is progressing with an earlier plan set out in 2014 for a $33 billion expansion of DWC in phases. That plan had called for growing the airport to become one of the world’s biggest with an annual capacity of more than 250 million passengers once completed.
Revisiting the plan comes amid a rebound in passenger traffic through DXB and as the airport edges closer to its maximum capacity. The airport operator expects about 90 million people to pass through the hub in 2023, raising its earlier forecasts on higher travel demand.
Currently, about 80 per cent of the runway slots at Dubai International Airport are in use and it has a capacity to handle 100 million passengers.
With investments in biometric technology that can funnel more people through the terminal faster, the airport can raise capacity by 20 million passengers “without too much constraint”, Mr Griffiths said.
"You can double the throughput and halve the time that people are taking to go through the airport, you've got double the capacity without building anything," he said, referring to investments in technology.
"So the question is: when do we need to move to DWC? That's a very elastic question at the moment.
"We're going to be investing a significant amount of money in DXB. We're refurbishing a lot of existing terminals, we're rebuilding one of our smaller concourses and expanding one of our smaller terminals to give more capacity."
That will give more "capacity headroom" in order to avoid constraining the growth of customer airlines at the airport.
New tech at Dubai International Airport
The airport is currently also testing a new scanning machine that means passengers will not have to remove liquids or laptops from their bags.
This will cut the time needed to move passengers quickly through security checkpoints, Mr Griffiths said.
“It's already certified as being compliant with international security standards and if it works out in trials to be satisfactory and reliable, there's no reason why we couldn't roll it out fairly quickly,” he said.
About the dates for when the machines will be available for use airport-wide, Mr Griffiths said: "It's something that clearly we want to embrace as quickly as we can because it's good technology, it will take away a huge amount of passenger inconvenience and improve throughput."