Dubai International Airport saw the coronavirus pandemic push passenger traffic down by an unprecedented 70 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, its CEO announced Monday, even as the airport held onto its prized title as the world’s busiest for international travel.
While the key east-west transit point started to see an uptick in traffic after long-haul carrier Emirates resumed its routes last summer, the airport’s 2020 passenger load of 25.9 million is still a trickle compared to 2019.
Airlines slashed their schedules and flights declined by more than 50 percent with less than 80 percent of seats filled.
“In the past year, we have witnessed the most difficult circumstances the travel industry has ever faced,” said Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, adding that the 2020 figures “are reflective of that testing environment, but also come with an element of hope and confidence.”
For months as the travel industry collapsed worldwide, Dubai’s massive airport, which saw 86.4 million passengers in 2019, became a ghost-town of shuttered shops. But recovery gained momentum in December as the city promoted itself as a pandemic-friendly vacation spot for tourists fleeing tough restrictions back home.
In December alone, passenger volumes surpassed industry expectations at 2.19 million, the airport said. Israelis flocked to the United Arab Emirates after a breakthrough normalization deal and lockdown-weary travelers poured in to celebrate the holidays and New Year’s Eve at crowded bars and luxury hotels.
Underpinning Dubai’s reopening since last July has been an aggressive coronavirus testing campaign, with visitors welcome from anywhere as long as they get tested on arrival and in many cases before departure.
Now, Griffiths said, the airport is betting on a swift rollout of coronavirus vaccines to “encourage more people to get on a plane,” along with contactless and thermal imaging technology. The UAE has launched the world’s second-fastest coronavirus vaccination drive, with 50 doses administered per 100 residents as of Monday.
Despite signs of life, and vaccines offering a glimmer of hope, the industry’s outlook remains uncertain. Although overall demand is expected to rise this year, airlines are showing caution on international routes.
Wide-body jets used for long-haul flights, like Emirates’ iconic fleet of double-decker Airbus A380s, stand idle.
Vaccination campaigns have sputtered worldwide and concerns have risen over more transmissible virus variants. Ever-changing quarantine requirements across the world have thrown itineraries into disarray.
Meanwhile, the UAE is struggling with a major surge in coronavirus cases, prompting countries to halt flights to Dubai and the city’s government to impose restrictions that may disrupt its economy.
The United Kingdom banned all direct flights to Dubai last month, freezing the world’s busiest international air route. London was ranked as the top destination city for Dubai’s airport last year, with 1.15 million customers.
Dubai International Airport first surpassed London Heathrow as the world’s busiest airport for international traffic in 2014. It has retained the crown ever since, with some 90 airlines flying into the commercial entrepot. Heathrow, hit hard by the pandemic, said it was overtaken as Europe’s busiest hub by Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris last year.
For Dubai, a sheikhdom of skyscrapers in the UAE, the resumption of long-haul air travel is built deeply into its business interest. Emirates remains the linchpin of the wider empire known as “Dubai Inc.,” an interlocking series of businesses owned by the city-state.