When Dubai International Airport first opened, in 1960, it was little more than a sandy airstrip with a small terminal building, a fire station and a control tower. Today, after decades of expansion, DXB is the busiest airport in the world. In a world rebounding from pandemic-era paralysis, its three passenger terminals and concourses, two cargo “mega-terminals”, expo centre, maintenance hub and metro stations are bustling.
And soon, the emirate’s aviation stakeholders expect, they will be brimming. The airport is nearing capacity, with 80 per cent of its runway slots in use. Its operator, state-owned Dubai Airports, forecasts it will accommodate 90 per cent of its 100-million-passenger capacity this year.
Physical expansion, at this stage, is difficult. DXB’s prime location in northern Dubai’s heavily populated urban core is a reason for its success, but has now also become a constraint for any plans to build outwards.
Technology could go some way towards solving the problem. At this year’s International Air Transport Association (Iata) meeting in Istanbul, Paul Griffiths, Dubai Airports’ chief executive, told The National that investments in biometric technology could raise capacity by a further 20 million passengers.
But Dubai’s immense popularity – as a tourism destination, commercial hub and place of residence – shows little sign of abating, raising expectations that, eventually, the emirate will need to outgrow its reliance on DXB.
All of this, to some extent, was foreseen more than a decade ago. In 2010, Dubai opened its second international airport, Al Maktoum International (DWC), located in the emirate’s southern Jebel Ali area, and aviation industry watchers believe it is about to come into its own. Authorities recently approved ambitious plans to redevelop the neighbourhood, building up the Palm Jebel Ali (a twin to the famed Palm Jumeirah) to accommodate 35,000 families.
The Dubai government, Dubai Airports and local airlines are in discussions over how to proceed with expansion of DWC, part of a $33 billion plan set out in 2014 to eventually transform it from a six-runway facility into one of the world’s biggest airports. Enlarging the airport and giving it a more prominent place in Dubai’s aviation landscape is “definitely needed”, Mr Griffiths says, but the timeline remains up in the air.
Firming up a schedule requires nailing down the projected needs of Emirates, flydubai and other airlines, and evaluating what is the most affordable path for addressing short-term needs. While DWC operates a busy schedule of flights, it lacks the facilities of DXB, meaning new investment will need to be comprehensive and carefully considered.
The dividends of such an investment, however, are likely to be high. Emirates is already the world’s biggest long-haul airline company, but it is expanding its fleet further in anticipation of growing demand. The company enjoyed record profits in the latest financial year, leading to generous bonuses to all of its staff.
Given that level of success, airport expansion is not only prudent, but necessary.
“We are in the market for buying quite a few more aircraft,” Emirates’ president, Tim Clark, told journalists at the Iata meeting in Istanbul. They will need to be housed somewhere.