It is no longer news to report that the coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the aviation industry.
In the past year, airlines across the globe have struggled to contend with endless flight cancellations, disrupted networks and, in some cases, entire fleets being grounded and seeking storage in boneyards around the world.
Travel restrictions and border closures coupled with a lack of demand for travel has been damaging for the industry. According to the Centre for Aviation's Fleet Database, in 2020, passenger load factor slumped to levels not seen since the 1980s.
Now, as some countries begin to ease travel restrictions as vaccination rates increase, there's hope on the horizon. While the number of commercial passenger flights in the air continues to be significantly lower than it was before the pandemic, air travel is slowly experiencing signs of recovery.
By the end of 2020, passenger numbers climbed back to 2003 levels, and in the first three months of 2021 more jets returned to the skies. Data and analytics company Cirium has tracked passenger flights arriving at airports in the Middle East between January and March this year to determine the top 10 busiest airports in the region.
The top 10 busiest airports in the Middle East
1. Dubai International Airport, UAE
2. Hamad International Airport, Doha, Qatar
3. King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
4. King Abdulaziz International Airport, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
5. King Fahd International Airport, Dammam, Saudi Arabia
6. Abu Dhabi International Airport, UAE
7. Sharjah International Airport, UAE
8. Mehrabad International Airport, Tehran, Iran
9. Muscat International Airport, Oman
10. Kuwait International Airport, Kuwait
Dubai: 19,168 passenger flights in three months
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dubai tops the list. Once the busiest airport in the world for international flights, DXB welcomed 19,168 passenger flights in the first quarter of this year. While that's a 49 per cent drop in traffic when compared with the same period in 2020 – when the airport welcomed 37,915 flights – it's the highest number in the Middle East, putting the Emirates Airline hub in a leading position as air travel begins to return.
Second on the list is Hamad International Airport in Qatar. The Doha airport recorded more than 15,000 passenger flights arriving between January and March, showing a 35 per cent drop compared with the same period in 2020.
Airports across Saudi Arabia take the third, fourth and fifth slots in the ranking. While the kingdom has been closed to tourists to restrict the spread of Covid-19, it has experienced a surge in domestic travel during the pandemic.
Travel restrictions and quarantine policies
Inevitably, all airports in the top 10 ranking experienced a drop in traffic in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same period last year, owing to the impact of the global pandemic.
Abu Dhabi ranked as the sixth-busiest airport in the Middle East, having welcomed 5,055 flights from January to March. That's 58 per cent lower than the number of arriving flights in the same period in 2020, when 12,124 flights flew into the UAE capital.
Abu Dhabi has been restricting travel since March 2020, when international flights in and out of the emirate were first grounded. Since then, travellers have been allowed to fly out of Abu Dhabi freely, but anyone flying in from a non-approved country must undergo 10 days of quarantine.
Recently, more countries have been added to Abu Dhabi's Green List, a possible sign of a further easing of restrictions, which could result in Abu Dhabi International Airport beginning to climb in the ranks.
Rounding out the top 10 list is Kuwait International Airport, which experienced the largest drop in passenger flight numbers year-on-year of all those listed in the top 10. In the first three months of 2020, 10,760 flights arrived in the sheikhdom. Fast forward to this year and only 2,603 flights flew into Kuwait in the same period – a drop of 76 per cent.
The country has been battling rising cases of Covid-19 since May 2020 and has imposed strict entry rules that currently allow only citizens and their first-degree relatives to enter Kuwait.