Dubai International Airport has overtaken Paris’s Charles de Gaulle as the second busiest airport in the world for international passenger traffic. Earlier this year it surpassed Hong Kong in third.
London Heathrow’s has reason to fear its long-held leading position is threatened. Dubai International handled 4.8 million passengers in February, says the Airports International Council, a trade group; Heathrow handled 5.6 million. Dubai could surpass it by the end of the year, according to some estimates.
Several factors are behind its rise. First, is its geographic situation in the Middle East. Dubai sits at the intersection of Europe, Africa and Asia at a time when the world’s focus is shifting east. Over the past five years, the number of passengers traveling through Dubai International each year has jumped to 51 million from 28.8 million, a 77% increase, backing the notion that Dubai is the new global travel crossroads.
A second reason is Dubai’s push to become a global financial capital, something that is proving to be a difficult task. The emirate was hit hard by the global economic crisis in 2008. A corporate debt crisis almost caused the emirate to declare default in 2009. Today, with investors’ confidence regained and Islamic finance vigorous, the idea of Dubai becoming a business hub is resurgent.
Third is Dubai’s ability, shared with the United Arab Emirates as a whole, just not to be upset by the Arab Spring, but to benefit from it. As a consequence of the revolts across the region, many expatriates have found a reason to return to the emirate. A more important economic effect is that though tourism to the Middle East has declined as a consequence of the Arab Spring, Dubai has continued to attract visitors.
A fourth explanation lies in the role of Emirates, the largest airline in the Middle East and Dubai’s flagship carrier. Its global expansion through alliances and partnerships with other international airlines has brought it new routes and millions of passengers now travel to and through the emirate. Dubai Airports says that it saw nearly 7 million extra passengers last year compared to 2011, a 13.2% increase to 57.7 million.
Don’t expect the growth in the numbers to slow down any time soon. Dubai International Airport is in the midst of a $7.8 billion expansion plan to boost capacity to 90 million passengers by 2018, as well adding as a concourse for the Airbus SAS A380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft.
Meanwhile, a second airport closer to the city center is expanding rapidly. Dubai World Central, a master-planned aerotropolis (this is Dubai, after all), is a cargo airport, handling 219,092 tonnes of air freight during its second full calendar year of operations, an increase of 144% over 2011.
Passenger flights haven’t started yet at the airport, also known to as Al-Maktoum International Airport, though talks are at an advanced stage with several airlines to do so. An announcement is likely soon. (UPDATE: On April 3 Dubai Airports announced that it would start passenger service on October 27.)
Dubai World Central could be handling 80 million passengers a year by 2027. By then the emirate could have the two busiest airports in the world — and you won’t be able to fly anywhere without going through Dubai.