Dubai’s new al-Maktoum International Airport, scheduled for opening next month and anticipated to be the largest in the world, will make the emirate a major global transport hub, aviation experts say.
The 220 square-kilometer airport at Dubai World Central (DWC), which has been handling cargo flights since June 2010, received last week the green light from the General Civil Aviation Authority to begin receiving passengers on Oct. 27.
The airport will eventually consist of five runways, with a capacity for 160 million passengers and 12 million tons per year.
The airport’s conception and development is part of Dubai’s strategy to continue having a large passenger capacity in the future, said John Strickland, a UK-based airline industry analyst with aviation consultancy JLS Consulting.
“Dubai overall has been a success story in aviation terms with airport and airlines, in the case of Emirates of course, for some time, not only in the region, but globally,” said the analyst.
“[It] has become, in many ways, a reference point to global aviation and the philosophy of the government of Dubai as well, recognizing the importance of aviation to the economy and being willing to invest,” Strickland added.
David Bentley, head of UK-based consultancy Big Pond Aviation, said he believes the airport will be successful “assuming that projected aviation growth [continues],” although the unpredictability of the often turbulent global transport market makes projections difficult to make.
In addition to passenger capacity, the project aims to be an “aerotropolis,” an urban plan concept where the layout, infrastructure, and economy is centered around an airport, otherwise known as an airport city.
Strickland called the implementation of the concept a “perfect opportunity.”
“Bringing trade around the airport itself can be a key catalyst in a much wider economic activity,” Bentley added.
Dubai World Central's masterplan shows zones for aviation, logistics and residential projects. (Graphic courtesy of Dubai World Central)
Saudi-Arabia based carrier Nas Air and the Hungarian budget airline Wizz Air are ready to commence passenger services from the airport, located in the city’s spacious and relatively unpopulated Jebel Ali area.
Why open an airport with only two minor carriers sharing a single strip of runway?
According to Saj Ahmad, a London-based aviation analyst at consultancy Strategic Aero Research, the idea behind such a so-called “soft” opening is a deliberate strategy.
“It makes sense that they’re going for a staggered approach rather than a big explosive opening,” said Ahmad, noting that London airport Heathrow’s premature and problematic opening of a new terminal in 2008 was a “PR disaster.”
“Dubai doesn’t want that on its lap. This is one of the biggest airports in the world, and they want as much positive publicity as possible, not negative,” said the analyst.
“Everything they’re doing seems to reflect a cautious approach rather than really being ostentatious,” he added.
Julius Baumann, a spokesman for Dubai Airports, told Al Arabiya the he expects the new airport to become popular once opened, and that the airport’s first passenger terminal that will be operational from the airport’s first day has “more than a sufficient capacity at this point.”
When opened, the airport may prove to be another string in Dubai’s bow, as the emirates furthers its ambitions to become a global transport hub.
“The Middle East and China is where you see the strongest growth in the aviation sector,” said Franz Buch Cnudsen, an aviation market analyst and project director at Denmark-based engineering consultancy Ramboll.
“The U.S. and Europe is lagging behind,” said the analyst.
“The growth rate for Europe and the U.S. is between 2 and 4 percent, while it’s between 6 and 10 percent for the Middle East and China,” he said.
Cnudsen said he believes the global travel market has changed significantly over the past few years, particularly in the Middle East.
In the last decade, long-haul traffic as well as transport hubs have moved from Europe and Asia towards the Middle East, partly due to the region’s central geographic position.
“The Middle East markets are where we expect the strongest growth in the airport sector,” said Cnudsen.
Strickland said although the aviation market in terms of both airports and airlines is “very difficult” to predict “the long term trend is upward, and the Gulf carriers, led by Emirates, have proved their success in performing in the global market.”
Threat of long-range airliners
However, while the airport may likely help cement Dubai and Middle East’s stance in the global aviation sector, technology may threaten the current position.
Bentley believes if airlines adopt Boeing’s new long-range airliner, the 787, as well as Airbus’ upcoming A350, may make aviation hubs less relevant.
“The Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350 are designed specifically to do the exact opposite of hubs. They’re designed to fly long distance between what we call ‘thin routes’ between cities which otherwise would not be able to justify a route with a big plane like an A380 or a Boeing 747,” said Bentley.
“That is the ultimate threat to Dubai – that it gets bypassed,” he added.