Moving to Dubai's Al Maktoum: Why do major international airports relocate?

Dubai is just the latest city to move to a new international airport as demand for flights grows

Croydon Airport, which preceded Heathrow Airport in serving London, pictured in 1953. Getty Images
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Dubai has approved a new project to build a Dh128 billion ($34.8 billion) passenger terminal at Al Maktoum International Airport.

And Dubai International Airport (DXB) will likely be shut down once the transition is completed – but moves of this kind are more normal than some might expect.

In 1960, when the airport opened, the single runway was surrounded by desert. Whereas, today, it is surrounded by homes, offices and businesses.

Relocating to Al Maktoum International Airport in the quieter, southern part of Dubai, is intended to ensure continued growth.

Neighbouring Abu Dhabi has relocated its airport three times. First from a simple hut and a sand airstrip at what is now the Abu Dhabi TV complex, then to what has become Al Bateen Executive Airport, and finally to the current site off the main island at Zayed International Airport.

Even here, the airport last year underwent a massive expansion, transferring most of its operations to the new Terminal A.

'Hearts in mouths' at Kai Tak Airport

Not for nothing was landing an aircraft at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport known as the “heart attack approach”.

Jumbo jets carrying hundreds of passengers would daily swerve to the right to avoid a ridge of hills, before dropping a few hundred feet above crowded apartment blocks and a busy motorway to land on a runway that was more like a postage stamp.

In 1998, sanity was restored with the opening of the new Hong Kong International Airport, on the island of Chek Lap Kok. The old airport, built in 1925, was simply no longer fit for purpose, deafening thousands every day on the ground, while leaving arriving passengers with hearts in their mouths. Amazingly though, it never saw a fatal accident.

Airports have been relocating since the early days of passenger flight. Back in the late 1940s, London realised that its Croydon Airport would soon be hopelessly inadequate for the coming boom in commercial international aviation. Planners looked west, to the outskirts of the city and an area of small farms and quiet villages, settling on the little hamlet of Hounslow Heath.

Three quarters of a century later, Heathrow Airport has expanded to five terminals and is currently embroiled in a debate about building a third runway, complicated by worries about noise and the environment.

Istanbul also struggled with its existing Ataturk Airport, hemmed in by the city and the sea on all sides. The new Istanbul Airport, built some distance from the city on land formerly used for coal mining, opened in 2018 and is now the second busiest in Europe after Heathrow. The old airport is now used for private jets.

Beijing has its new Daxing International Airport, the second to serve a city with a population of over 21 million people. Nearly 50km from the heart of the city, its single terminal, known as the starfish for its design, is the largest in the world, opening for business in 2019. Daxing International has four runways, with annual passenger levels rising from three million in the pandemic-hit first year, to nearly 40 million today.

Learning lessons from Tegel Airport

Not all relocations have gone smoothly. Berlin’s old Tegel Airport began as a base for testing airships in the early 20th century and was crucial to the success of the Berlin Airlift during the Soviet blockade in 1948.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of the city that saw it become the capital of Germany again, it was clear a new airport was needed.

What followed was a construction disaster. Building work began in 2006, with a provisional completion date in five years. But 2011 came and went, as did every year until 2020, when Berlin Brandenburg Airport finally received its first passengers.

Problems included fears that the main terminal roof would collapse, a fire prevention system nicknamed “the monster” for its complexity and a baggage handling process that gave workers electric shocks.

Berlin’s experience underlines just how complicated and prone to unexpected delays modern airports can be. But that has not deterred cities from building new ones.

Ho Chi Min City is building Long Thanh International Airport, the most expensive infrastructure project in Vietnam’s history. The Philippines has just approved a new airport with capacity for 25 million passengers in Manila Bay. Noida International Airport, on the outskirts of Delhi, will be India’s largest when it is expected to open later this year.

In many cities, demand for air travel is so great, old airports still continue to operate, particularly if they are close to the centre and can be used by business travellers.

Others, like Ellinikon International Airport, which closed in 2001 after the opening of Athens International Airport, lay abandoned for years.

As for Kai Tak in Hong Kong, it is now a quieter, less stressful place – renamed and repurposed as Runway Park.

Updated: April 30, 2024, 12:03 PM