Dubai Air Show

Dubai says airports will defy downturn

 - November 12, 2009, 11:19 PM

Until about a year ago, the Dubai economy laid a fair claim to being the mother of all modern property booms with new skyscrapers appearing on its skyline at a breathtaking rate. However, once ripples from the global financial crisis started to hit Dubai’s shores, it appeared that many of the developments may figuratively have been built on sand without the firm foundation of sustainable demand.

But this negative situation does not apply to Dubai International Airport (DXB) and its new big brother Dubai World Central-Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC-AMI), insisted Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths last month. The development of the airports is “very much alive and well,” he said at a conference held in Paris by France’s Air & Space Academy.

According to Griffiths, Dubai’s airport traffic throughput is to reach 40.5 million passengers this year–8 percent up on 2008 despite the softening in international air transport demand.

The government-backed company expects an even more impressive growth to continue through 2025, which is why DWC-AMI is being built on a vast scale at Jebel Ali 30 miles from the city center.

Today, passengers can choose from 125 carriers serving 210 destinations from Dubai. Next year, traffic is projected to be 46 million passengers, although that figure is down almost 10 percent on the 51 million forecast two years ago. According to the latest predictions, in 2013 the annual passenger total should reach 61 million. For 2025, the target is 140 million, which means that the 2009 total would have to more than triple over the next 16 years. “We’ll have the world’s busiest [airport] platform [combining DXB and DWC-AMI] probably by 2018,” Griffiths said.

Low-cost carriers are set to be a key driver of this anticipated growth. For example, in October, start-up Flydubai ranked eighth among DXB’s carriers after just six months of operations. “Flydubai eventually plans to carry as many passengers as Emirates [albeit over smaller distances],” Griffiths said. In his view, the low-cost sector remains “very immature” here in the Middle East but has great growth potential. 

Cargo traffic is growing, too, increasing by 9 percent last year when it handled 1.8 million metric tons of freight. One new initiative in this sector is Dubai’s “flower hub,” which acts as a distribution point for flowers coming from Thailand, Europe and Africa.

Dubai International now claims to be the fifth busiest airport in the world. “This shows what you can achieve when you have alignment of a government’s will, funding, a strong home-based carrier and a strategic plan toward 2015,” Griffiths emphasized. As a testament of the government will for DXB to succeed, Griffiths mentioned that HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, often drives his own Range Rover to the airport to check that everybody is doing his or her job.

Airports in Dubai are critically important to national growth and development. In fact, they are even seen as an important part of the national identity. “Aviation is big business in Dubai, contributing at least 25 percent of Dubai’s GDP,” said Griffiths. He explained that Dubai Airports’ expansion is demand-led, countering past criticism that some projects in the emirate are driven more by wishful thinking than a sound business plan.

“We can gather all stakeholders–customers, suppliers, authorities, and so forth–in the same room to make decisions quickly,” added Griffiths. “We have none of the bureaucratic hurdles most airports encounter when trying to add capacity.”

Among other competitive advantages, Dubai benefits from a catchment area that includes one third of the world’s population within four hours’ flying time. Griffiths also acknowledged that the cheap workforce coming mainly from the Indian subcontinent has cut construction costs for recent new airport buildings, such as DXB’s Terminal 3 and Concourse 2.

As for dealing with environmental concerns, at the Paris conference Claude Terrazzoni, president of the French airport association, declared with an expression of envy: “You have no environmentalists!” Indeed, DXB faces no night curfew or aircraft movement limit as do some of its rivals in Western democracies.

Although Dubai’s growth has been largely untroubled by environmental concerns or constraints so far, Griffiths pledged that the airport is to become greener. “We are not required by law to take care of the environment, but we do it under pressure from the [outside] world and as a good housekeeping policy,” Griffiths commented.

Using the abundant solar energy seems an obvious course of action. However, passenger traffic peaks at night, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. One idea is to use a solar-energy process to cool large masses of concrete or metal during the day and then using this energy to cool recirculated air at night, avoiding the use of electrically powered air conditioning.

Air Traffic Concerns
Another challenge has been air traffic management. Two other airports in the Gulf region–at Abu Dhabi and Doha–are growing fast. Griffiths told AIN that a lack of adequate cooperation between the air traffic control agencies covering airspace around these airports can restrict the efficient flow of traffic. Moreover, military airspace in the region is kept closed even when not in use. Griffiths said he would like the United Arab Emirates to create, at a federal level, a Eurocontrol-inspired organization to increase air traffic capacity.

Future developments at DXB include improvements in Terminal 1 as well as opening metro stations in Terminals 1 and 3 to connect the airport with Dubai’s new public ground transportation network. A new extension, Concourse 3, is planned to deal with flagcarrier Emirates’ growth and is to be connected to the rest of the airport via high-speed automated people movers. Ninety percent of its gates are to be compatible with the Airbus A380 super-widebody airliner.

As for aircraft operations at DXB, runway use will be optimized. Schedule and slot coordination are to be introduced next March. And, finally, the level of performance-based navigation is planned to be extended to boost capacity.

When complete, the new DWC-AMI gateway is to have five runways and be able to accommodate 120 aircraft movements per hour. Final annual capacity is planned to be 160 million passengers and 12 million metric tons of cargo.

“This will be the first new-generation airport,” Griffiths said. Project planners want the airport to “maximize passenger convenience,” so they have a particular focus on minimizing the extent to which security provisions can undermine the convenience. Technologies such as biometrics, radio frequency identification and backscatter X-ray should make the process more seamless. Also under consideration are “personal rapid transports” that would effectively be individual automated people movers.

The first phase of the vast DWC-AMI complex is scheduled to be operational next June. Between that start date and the following December, approximately one million passengers are expected to pass through the facility. The first terminal is eventually to have an annual capacity of five to seven million passengers, including general aviation travelers. The initial cargo terminal is projected to be able to handle 250,000 to 600,000 tons per year.

The first runway will be 15,000-feet long. Plans call for 64 code-F (A380 compatible) aircraft stands as well as maintenance facilities. On the drawing board also is a dedicated road to link the airport to the region’s largest port in Jebel Ali, and eventually to DXB.

Here at the Dubai show, Dubai Airports is exhibiting in the Emirates Hall at Stand A210.