Bigger than anywhere else would seem to be the mission statement of the United Arab Emirates – take the Burj Khalifa for example – and nowhere more so than at the international airport where the Dubai Airshow is held this week, writes Jorn Madslien for the BBC.
Vast, glass-fronted terminal buildings are fronted by palm trees and manicured lawns, their facades punctuated by massive cranes that bring testimony to the continued expansion of capacity here. Behind the airport, the cityscape is made up of buildings, many half completed and a sea of constructions sites. Convoys of buses that look like prison transport and filled with inexpensive, imported labourers trudge past on the busy roads.
The existing DXB international airport, with its huge, air-conditioned terminal buildings, has proved that it’s capable of processing a monthly throughput of between four and five million people.
In July, a record 4.7 million people travelled through the airport, marking a 9.7% rise over July 2010. Then, in September, Dubai Duty Free proudly declared that its sales had topped US$1bn since 1 January and could reach almost $1.5bn by the end of the year. On the passenger front, the airport aims to be able to handle a whopping 160 million passengers per year.
Those may be big figures, but the traffic at the existing international airport is set to be dwarfed by the new Al Maktoum International Airport, constructed half an hour’s drive outside the city in a vast, mostly empty area near Jebel Ali, located on the outskirts of the emirate towards Abu Dhabi.
The new airport is an integral part of a 140 square kilometre transport hub, and thus essential to Dubai’s grand ambition of becoming a global centre for logistics, trade and travel.
That’s not to say absolutely everyone will be factoring in a vacation in Dubai along the way – although of course, the Arab emirate hopes this will contribute to a rise in tourism – otherwise it wouldn’t be investing the equivalent of the gross national product of a small country into this expansion.
Instead, the vast majority will be passing through, having been flown here in enormous aircraft such as the Airbus A380 or the Boeing 777, only to switch to similarly-sized aircraft for long-haul flights or to smaller planes for trips within the region. The idea of using the Middle East as a stopover is already proving popular with passengers flying between Europe and Australia, replacing the traditional stopovers of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
If it all goes according to plan then Dubai is set to become home to the largest airport in the world.
“Emirates, Dubai’s main carrier, is expected to move its entire operation to the new airport around 2020, avoiding a fragmented operation over two facilities,” John Strickland, aviation analyst with JLS Consulting, told the BBC.
“This is in stark contrast to the constraints for growth at airports like London Heathrow.”
Dubai’s ability to expand both terminal and runway capacity quickly without any major constraints makes it easier for UAE’s airlines to offer direct, frequent routes to destinations across the world, acknowledges Colin Matthews, chief executive of airport operator BAA, which owns Heathrow, one of Europe’s main hubs.
“The region’s major airlines, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar, will certainly have a big impact on global aviation,” he says. “Dubai is changing the game.”
In addition to the dramatic growth in passenger traffic, Dubai’s embryonic cargo terminal is also growing at an impressive rate.
“Logistics will always remain one of Dubai’s key sectors and its key strength,” says Ayesha Sabawala at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“With the gradual shift in trade from West to East, I don’t think Dubai can afford not to continue to improve on its logistics capabilities.”
Moreover, the air cargo terminal is linked to the world’s sixth-largest container terminal, Jebel Ali Sea Port, which helps cement Dubai’s role as an ultra-efficient commodities trading hub that links Africa with Asia.
“As key 21st century markets like China, Africa, India and Latin America grow, Dubai’s airport infrastructure allows it to maintain its centuries old status as a key trading crossroad,” says Mr Strickland.
For the world’s aerospace companies, the UAE carriers have thus become their best clients.
“Traffic is still growing in the Middle East,” according to Paul Sheridan, head of risk advisory for aviation specialists Ascend.
“Carriers based here will be ordering aircraft to grow their market share of traffic between Asia and Europe and the US.”
This is especially pertinent a time when there is “little demand from Europe or the United States” due to ongoing economic woes, observes Daniel Broby, chief investment officer at Silk Invest.
Stephen Furlong, transport analyst at Davy Research, agrees. “We absolutely expect the Gulf airlines to continue on the expansion trail,” he says.
“They are very into having a young fleet and are determined to be super-connectors who try to hoover up traffic flows on a global basis.”
Already at the show, resident carrier Emirates has ordered $18bn worth of Boeing 777 aircraft, whilst signing options for a further $8bn worth of planes. That’s in addition to the order placed at the Farnborough International Airshow in the UK last October for 30 Boeing 777 aircraft. And as the week progresses, Qatar and Etihad are expected to place multi-billion dollar aircraft orders of their own.
The Dubai Airshow runs from 13 to 17 November 2011.
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