Dubai International Airport on Thursday welcomed its billionth passenger, marking a major milestone in its transformation from a desert airfield into an international hub connecting East and West.
Dubai International Airport took 51 years to rack up 500 million passengers but welcomed the remaining 500 million in only seven years.
It expects to handle just over 90 million passengers this year, up from 88.2 million last year, Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai Airports, said in November.
In its pursuit of growth, Dubai International has become the world’s busiest airport in terms of international passenger numbers, taking the title from London Heathrow.
Driving its success is Dubai’s strategic location between Europe and Asia within an eight-hour flight radius of two thirds of the world’s population. It offers a network of 240 destinations and is home to the world’s largest long-haul carrier, Emirates.
Dubai took a long-term decision to diversify its economy in the 1980s. It focused on developing its aerospace sector as part of a push to beef up its non-oil revenue, transform the city into a business hub, create jobs and attract tourists.
Open-skies policies, large investments in infrastructure and a foreign investor-friendly business environment spurred the development of the aviation industry. Aviation will account for 37.5 per cent of Dubai’s gross domestic product in 2020 and about 45 per cent of GDP by 2030 from 27 per cent in 2013, according to Oxford Economics.
Passenger traffic has been lucrative for Dubai, which historically has been a regional trade hub.
Rapid passenger growth over the last decade led Dubai to face capacity constraints. Expansion will see the airport able to handle 118 million passengers annually by 2023 from 100 million at the moment.
The two-runway airport can become severely congested at peak times. Carriers contend for valuable slots at the busy airfield where more than 100 airlines fly to 240 destinations worldwide.
An International Air Transportation Association forecast shows that global airline passenger numbers could double to 8.2 billion by 2037 but said governments must address capacity constraints at their home hubs to capitalise on that growth.
Dubai is planning a major expansion of its second hub – Al Maktoum International Airport, also known as DWC. Once completed, it will be the world’s biggest airport and a new base for Emirates airlines.
The emirate is spending $36 billion (Dh132.21bn) to increase DWC’s annual capacity to 130 million passengers in the first phase when it opens by 2030. Ultimately, the airport will be able to handle up to 260 million passengers a year.
Opened in 2013 for passenger flights, by 2017 DWC was handling 904,940 passengers, a 6.4 per cent rise on the year before, and a fraction of Dubai International Airport’s traffic.
DWC is one part of a wider aviation and logistics project known as Dubai South.
Over the years, Dubai invested in expanding and improving the airport through key development projects. Among these was the 2016 opening of Concourse D, a Dh3.35bn facility with the ability to handle 18 million passengers a year, something which boosted Dubai International’s total annual capacity.
Concourse A opened in 2013 after an investment of Dh12bn, with an annual capacity of 19 million passengers.
Hand in hand with aviation development, Dubai spent billions on new attractions and eased some visa restrictions to attract visitors. This year, Dubai was the fourth most-visited city in the world for the fourth year, according to Mastercard.
According to IATA, the Middle East’s total passenger traffic will grow at a compound annual rate of 4.4 per cent by 2037 to reach 501 million passengers – a big opportunity for the regional hubs to attract leisure and business travellers with the right infrastructure investments.
Dubai’s rise as a modern hub connecting East and West is a story of globalisation and an ambitious bet on the future of air travel.