Dubai to scrap dual airport operations once move to mega-hub at Al Maktoum is complete

Aviation boss says two hubs will not be needed, paving the way for massive redevelopment of Garhoud

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Dubai International Airport (DXB) will likely be shut down once the transition is completed in a decade to the new passenger terminal at Al Maktoum International.

The massive task of moving all passenger operations from Dubai International to Al Maktoum International will occur gradually in phases, leaving the new facility as the emirate's sole mega-hub, Dubai Airports chief executive Paul Griffiths told The National on Monday.

The new airport, with five times the capacity of DXB, will also open opportunities to redevelop the prime real estate around the airport in Al Garhoud, he said.

“The way the city is growing is towards the south, so Dubai World Central (DWC) will be a very convenient and quick journey once all the road and rail networks are in place. It is quite probable that once the transition is complete, DXB will close to traffic and enable the redevelopment of the whole Al Garhoud area,” Mr Griffiths said.

There are tremendous opportunities for development in and around the existing airport. I cannot foresee that we will be operating it for very long [after the switch to Al Maktoum]
Paul Griffiths, Dubai Airports

Dubai International Airport's city centre location makes it difficult to expand further.

“There are tremendous opportunities for development in and around the existing airport. I cannot foresee that we will be operating it for very long. The idea of DWC is to get enough capacity to accommodate the future travel demand with an initial capacity of 150 million passengers and extending that to 260 million once all phases are completed.”

Mr Griffiths' comments came a day after Dubai said it approved designs for a new passenger terminal at Al Maktoum International and began construction at a cost of Dh128 billion ($34.8 billion).

It also comes after DXB home carriers Emirates and flydubai announced massive multi-million dollar orders at the Dubai Airshow in November for widebody aircraft that will require space to accommodate their growing fleet and their expansion plans.

The latest announcement comes after Dubai had set out an earlier plan in 2014 for a $33 billion expansion of DWC in phases. It also 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 surge in passenger traffic through DXB and as the airport edges closer to its maximum capacity amid higher travel demand.

Next steps

Operator Dubai Airports is now in the detail design phase where decisions must be made on the hub's final configuration, operational philosophy, relationship with ground transport, customer service plan, F&B and retail strategy.

“There is a huge amount of work and detail design to be undertaken … we have our work cut out for us,” Mr Griffiths said.

The operational testing of the massive infrastructure will require intensive efforts and proofing the entire construction.

“It is very complex. The volume and scale of what we envision is unprecedented,” Mr Griffiths said.

“What a fantastic opportunity this is to make a real imprint on global aviation industry and what a very exciting project. The team will deliver something breathtaking.”

Mr Griffiths said it is “too early” to provide details about the awarding of contracts given the large volume of work to be done on the detail design phase.

“Once we've got the detailed design, then the packages can be let to the contractors,” he said.

Airlines move to Al Maktoum

Managing the transition of airlines operating at DXB, including home carriers Emirates and Flydubai, to Al Maktoum Airport will be a “massive undertaking” and will likely unfold in phases, according to Mr Griffiths.

“It will not be in one go, it's far too big an undertaking to happen in one move. It will be something that we have to manage very carefully because Dubai Airports takes pride in the way it manages infrastructure,” he said.

Emirates, the world's largest airline by international traffic, has a fleet of 260 aircraft and carried 43.6 million passengers in its last fiscal year.

Its sister airline flydubai's fleet includes 86 aircraft and it carried 13.8 million passengers last year.

DXB is currently connected to 262 destinations across 104 countries through 102 international airlines, according to its latest data.

“Inevitably this [transition] won't be a quick or easy process. No airport move at this sort of scale has been undertaken,” he said.

“Our entire airline community will ultimately transition to DWC and we will work out a detailed programme nearer the time.”

Inevitably this [transition] won't be a quick or easy process. No airport move at this sort of scale has been undertaken
Paul Griffiths

Project of the future

Dubai's ambitions for the new passenger terminal will have reverberations globally, as DXB is already the world's biggest airport by international passenger traffic, Mr Griffiths said.

“This is tremendously big news for the world's aviation community. It underpins the growth story of Dubai’s whole aviation enterprise for the next 50 years. It was inevitable to make this decision because DXB was founded in 1960 and is now a constrained site,” he said.

The bold 10-year plan also underscores the direct relationship between the emirate's economic growth and the rise of its aviation sector, while contrasting with other cities' slower progress in completing crucial airport infrastructure projects, he said.

Many expansion projects including at London's Heathrow Airport and Berlin's Brandenburg Airport have faced several challenges and delays in moving forward.

The idea behind DWC's new passenger terminal is to “provide enough airfield capacity to cope with the future shape and size of the aviation industry as it will be in 10 years' time”, Mr Griffiths said.

More airlines are moving towards deploying new-technology, fuel-efficient narrow-body aircraft that have longer range and better operating costs per seat, following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Single-aisle planes such as the Boeing 737 Max and Airbus A320 Neo will dominate aircraft deliveries over the next two decades, according to Boeing's 2023 Commercial Market Outlook.

New narrow-body planes will account for more than 75 per cent of all new deliveries, up slightly from the 2022 outlook, and totalling 32,420 aircraft.

The smaller jets means airports are required to accommodate more flight movements to carry the same capacity, Mr Griffiths said.

“We have to adapt with the times and the changes in the industry, and this is a significant one that's coming.”

Strong travel demand

Dubai Airports is certain that the future demand for air travel via Dubai will remain strong, necessitating the need for the massive new terminal.

“I can say with great confidence that within 10 years we will exceed the capacity ceiling of DXB and this move is a perfect timing for it,” Mr Griffiths said.

“We've managed to get the absolute best out of DXB. We're right at the edges of what's possible in the limited geography.”

The forecast travel demand “absolutely” justifies the capacity of 150 million annual passengers in the first phase of DWC's expansion, given the compounded growth rate of DXB and the forecast that it will “comfortably” exceed 90 million passengers this year, he said.

DWC has several future development stages that will allow an additional 110 million annual passenger capacity to be added in the second phase.

“There’s a growth platform to see us well into the 2050s and 2060s,” he said.

Asked how the mega-project will be funded, Mr Griffiths said the decision ultimately rests with Dubai's Department of Finance, but that DXB's robust performance and revenue base makes for a strong case for project financing.

“Overall it’s the right project at the right time and I'm confident demand will be there to satisfy the capacity being built and in general, economically, confidence in the city and the aviation sector to fund and finance the project.”

Mr Griffiths, 66, also hopes to continue to manage the project through to its end.

“I'd love to be around to see it come to fruition and cut the ribbon but let's see if I'm fit … then I’d love to be there. It will be a crowning glory of a long involvement in the aviation sector.”

Dubai's SmartGate airport system makes travel hassle free

Dubai's SmartGate airport system makes travel hassle free

Regional airport expansion

The new airport terminal project follows the opening of the new Terminal A building at Abu Dhabi's Zayed International Airport and comes after Saudi Arabia outlined its ambitious plans for a new major airport in Riyadh as part of its broader aviation development strategy.

But Dubai's new plans are not a reaction to these regional aviation developments, Mr Griffiths said.

“We are proud to have a strategy to keep us No 1 in the future … it's not a response, it's a proactive stance to ring-fence our position as the No 1 aviation hub,” he said, pointing to earlier ambitions to develop DWC as a future growth site ever since its opening in 2010.

However, he did acknowledge the “hugely competitive environment” with massive projects being developed in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia.

“There is competition for construction resources, so we have to get our heads around that,” he said.

But he also welcomed the growth of aviation hubs across the region, which will support travel and tourism and enable local hubs to become more competitive with their global counterparts.

“It's good for the social development of the region. We will see dramatic changes for prosperity in the region due to significant changes in the aviation infrastructure. People say there’s overcapacity, but the region seems to absorb all the capacity we introduce,” he said.

“I'm very confident that these projects will [ultimately] make sense, especially when the rest of the world is failing to invest in their aviation infrastructure. We're happy for the Middle East to outstrip the rest of world.”

Updated: April 30, 2024, 2:00 PM