If any place on earth has the X-factor, surely it is Dubai, which has grown from a small trading post in the Gulf to one of the world’s most successful aviation hubs in less than 30 years.
For years, Dubai has arguably led the way for aviation growth in the Middle East, and with Dubai World Central–Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC) set to open to passenger flights in October, its phenomenal growth over the last decade shows no sign of slowing down.
Dubai International Airport (DXB) has seen record growth in passenger and cargo figures year-on-year.
Indeed, passenger traffic hit 32.6 million in the first half of 2013, making it the busiest six months in the airport’s history, and air cargo volumes rose 10.2% to 1,196,894 tonnes during the same period.
As a result, plans are afoot to increase DXB’s capacity to 90 million passengers per annum by 2018.
For any other destination, this would seem like a phenomenal feat, but not for Dubai. The city that has risen from the desert to become a tourism and business metropolis in a matter of decades is about to open a second international airport for passenger traffic.
An even bigger international airport, tipped to handle more than 160 million passengers and 12 million tonnes of cargo annually once fully operational, Dubai World Central will commence passenger flights in October, when it begins its quest to become the busiest airport in the world.
A fresh approach
According to Paul Griffiths, CEO of operator Dubai Airports, the plan is to completely reinvent the airport experience at DWC.
“We want to take a fresh view of the entire airport product,” he enthuses. “Most airports today have built on the legacy processes of the 1940/50s. Our aim is to have an airport like no other that will have a product and customer experience like no other.
“We want to make the passenger journey much shorter. We aim to take the entire process and cut out as many steps as possible. There are automated systems for all the legacy processes, such as check-in, passport checks etc.
“The passenger can check-in from their home or office, ensure their baggage is tagged and ready, have their passport details and profiles checked so their security status is already predetermined, all before leaving for the airport.
“The aim is to converge a lot of the legacy processes and make the whole airport process pretty invisible but no less thorough.”
The majority of DWC’s passenger movements will be transit passengers, and again, the aim is to make transfer times shorter.
“This makes the end to end journey more attractive,” points out Griffiths, who uses Emirates’ Newcastle to Sydney service as a prime example of how Dubai connects the world.
“Before the direct Emirates flight you had to travel to Heathrow and then via Bangkok or Singapore, so two intermediary airports. Now, one airline flies direct, with a short transit in Dubai.
“This is a huge time saving and we hope that will be the case for many more destinations.”
Griffiths is also looking at streamlining the airside experience. “At the moment, the way the airport turnaround is managed is a bit fragmented,” he remarks.
His aim is to have one vehicle to turn an aircraft around in a short time. There will be a complete review of the logistics behind this, but the economics are clear: the shorter time spent on the tarmac the better, both for the airport and for the airline.
Air traffic control capacity is another area Griffiths and his team are looking at in great detail.
“It’s no good having slick operations on the ground if you don’t have it in the air,” he muses. “We are looking at technical enhancements to give us greater reliability in the air traffic control process.”
The United Arab Emirates’ newest gateway, which officially opened to cargo flights in June 2010, boasts a 92 metre high air traffic control tower.
Griffiths is confident that passengers will particularly like what they find post-security, where cinemas, gyms, swimming pools and health and beauty services are all on offer.
“There is an opportunity to take the service beyond duty free and integrate retail, entertainment and food & beverage,” he says.
“You can take everyone as an individual who might want to use their leisure time in a different way. You create more choices but make them cost effective.
“In F&B, we are now working to reflect the international profile of our customers with a load of international brands. When we opened Concourse A [at DXB] in January, we were able to go out to the world with a number of brand names. Our product service has to reflect our global market.”
Phase 1 of DWC includes a single A380 compatible runway and 64 remote aircraft stands. Once completed, DWC will have up to four passenger terminals and five parallel runways, each 4.5km long.
Initial passenger capacity at Dubai World Central is 5mppa, but with an ambitious target of 160mppa by the mid 2020s.
“Our aim is to build up capacity over time and we are just finding out what the possibilities are to extend [beyond the target of 160mppa],” reveals Griffiths.
Passenger operations at DWC commence on October 27 with two airlines: Saudi Arabia’s nasair and Hungarian low-cost carrier Wizz Air.
Nasair plans to operate more than 50 flights a week between Dubai and destinations in Saudi Arabia. The carrier already operates 950 weekly flights to 28 destinations with a fleet of 21 aircraft comprised of Airbus A320s and Embraer E190s.
Wizz Air will provide non-stop services linking DWC to Central and Eastern Europe. It has a fleet of 40 Airbus A320 aircraft operating over 1,500 weekly flights to 93 destinations.
“Wizz Air will serve eastern parts of Europe giving access to the winter sun market for a new category of visitors. It is a short flight down to Dubai, and you are guaranteed excellent weather. There will be some surprises from the network opportunities,” Griffiths promises.
Once the airport has the infrastructure and critical mass, Dubai-based Emirates Airline is tipped to move its hub to DWC.
“Emirates is such a size now that we have to get enough capacity to operate a single hub as they are growing and we need a capacity of at least 60-70mppa.
It takes a few years to make an airport of that sort of capacity,” Griffiths points out.
While Emirates may move to DWC in the years to come, Griffiths is not working on creating a carbon copy of DXB, which is located in the old town centre of Garhoud.
“The good thing about DWC is that it is at the opposite end of Dubai from DXB, so airlines can serve a completely new catchment area. Regional carriers, especially low cost carriers, will see a lot of the benefits, with shorter transfer times to Downtown Dubai and the marina area.”
The airport forms the heart of a greater project also called Dubai World Central, a $32 billion, 140sqkm multi-phase development of six clustered zones that includes the Dubai Logistics City (DLC), Commercial City, Residential City, Aviation City and Golf City.
The development is the region’s first integrated, multi-modal transportation platform connecting air, sea and land.
“Having an international airport on your doorstep is good for business. You’ll get logistics and manufacturing companies starting to see the distribution links,” notes Griffiths. “There are a huge amount of business opportunities.”
Located in the vicinity of the Jebel Ali Port and Free Zone, with a bonded road linking the airport with the seaport, DWC makes air-sea connectivity achievable in four hours.
This makes the airport an important cargo hub, not just for the region, but globally too, insists Griffiths.
Phase one offers a cargo terminal building with a capacity of 250,000 tonnes a year. Once completed, the airport will have a capacity for 12 million tonnes a year.
As previously mentioned, DWC opened to cargo operators in 2010, and already, 34 cargo carriers are using the gateway, with cargo growing by 144% in 2012 to 219,092 tonnes.
Emirates SkyCargo has confirmed that all dedicated freight flights will be operated from its new cargo base at DWC from May 2014.
Two airports, one city
With DXB and DWC both falling under the Dubai Airports umbrella, synergies are already forming between the two airports, but can Dubai sustain both?
For Griffiths, who was managing director of London Gatwick before his 2007 move to Dubai, it’s a challenge he’s happy to consider.
“There are great economies of scale: a lot of our new staff will gain experience at the established airport and we will also redeploy some of our experienced staff to DWC,” he says.
DWC will open with just a couple hundred staff. That figure will definitely grow, but by how much is hard to gauge. Staff levels will depend on the success of the automation reengineering, which will cover labour intensive operations such as check-in.
So what will happen to DXB in the long-term, especially when and if Emirates moves its hub to DWC?
“We don’t have to make a decision now,” Griffiths explains, adding that the infrastructure at DXB is relatively young.
“Complexity of airspace might be difficult to manage and that is something we will look at, but obviously we can keep both operating for quite some time.”
If both airports do continue to operate, Dubai could be on its way to serving more than 260mppa – making it one of the world’s biggest aviation hubs.