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Pressure Points

Published: 02/02/2015 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2015 » February 2015 » Destinations »

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The numbers are in, and it looks like Dubai International has edged out London Heathrow as the world’s busiest airport for international passenger traffic.

In the 12-month period from September 2013 to September 2014, a total of 68.9 million passengers passed through Dubai International versus 67.8 million at Heathrow, according to numbers from Airports Council International.

As with all statistics some caveats and disclaimers are in order. Taken together, London area airports (Gatwick, Stansted, et al.) served well over 100 million passengers during the same time period, making it still by far the world’s busiest city for international air travel. And despite serious capacity restrictions, LHR still managed to put up nearly a half-million aircraft movements (takeoffs and landings), as compared with 350,000 relatively unfettered operations at 24-hour DXB.

Nevertheless, Dubai’s accomplishment is to be applauded, not least because it was only in 2008 that DXB broke into the Top 20 busiest airports in the world. The meteoric rise in traffic means that the number of passengers has almost doubled in the past seven years. It will also undoubtedly add more fire to the already heated debate in the UK over the fate of London’s premier aerodrome.

The airport’s feat also points to the success of the emirate’s policies calculated to make it the home of superlatives – the tallest building, the biggest shopping mall and now, the busiest international airport in the world.  

Dubai International 

A quick look at Dubai International’s growth curve shadows the development of the emirate itself. Dubai Airport opened in 1960; By 1969 there were 9 airlines to 20 destinations, by 2004 there were 107 airlines to more than 160 destinations. Today there are 140 airlines operating to 250 destinations.

Concourse C makes up most of the Terminal 1 complex – also known as the Sheikh Rashid Terminal – and handles most commercial flights to Dubai. Terminal 2 is home to Dubai’s budget airline flydubai. 

Terminal 3, which is dedicated to Emirates, was opened in 2008 along with an associated airside facility known as Concourse B. This addition nearly tripled Dubai International’s total capacity to 60 million passengers. The Terminal 3 complex also includes Concourse A, a purpose-built facility for A380, which opened in January 2013, which increased the airport’s capacity to 75 million passengers.

In the next five years, another $7.8 billion expansion is already in the works, with the construction of Concourse D, a state of the art facility for international airlines, plus further expansion of Terminal 2, and the total makeover of Terminal 1. It’s all part of the UAE’s ambitious plan for the year 2020 to double the number of visitors coming to the emirate to 20 million, and triple the amount contributed to its economy by tourism.

And not content to rest there, Dubai already has launched an even more ambitious airport project, Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central. The revised design calls for accelerating construction so that within six to eight years it’s projected to have a capacity of 120 million passengers.

Eventually the airport plans call for adding as many as six more concourses over time to bring the expanded airport’s capacity to around 240 million passengers per year. To handle the aircraft movements necessary to accommodate that many airplanes, the master plan has room for five parallel runways capable of simultaneous operations. 

London Heathrow T2

However aside from gawking at the numbers, the burst of growth at Dubai International brings into stark relief a broader theme in global air travel, a tectonic shift in how and by what route travelers reach their ultimate destinations. 

The jet engine has transformed the world – and not just the world of aviation, but the worlds of commerce, urbanization, societal development and human interaction. Destinations that were once days, even weeks apart are now hours away. More critically, the hubs that connect the spokes have become nodes in a worldwide network, as important to the global economy as the cities and regions they serve.

Nowhere on the planet is that global connection more evident than London. Falling to the Number Two spot in international traffic may lose Heathrow some bragging rights, but doesn’t diminish the significance of nearly 73 million people passing through its doors.

That fact is not lost on either airport planners or the millions of passengers who populate LHR’s new T2. 

When Queen Elizabeth II inaugurated London Airport’s first passenger terminal in December 1955, she declared: “Whatever form air travel may take in the future, and we may be certain that striking changes lie ahead, London Airport will, I am sure, continue to grow in importance as one of the world centers of air traffic.”

Sixty years on, these words have proved to be prescient, both for the building and the airport, long ago renamed Terminal 2 and Heathrow respectively. 

Last year, the 88-year-old monarch officially opened T2 for a second time, now rechristened the Queen’s Terminal. The £2.5 billion ($3.8 billion) facility has been designed to take into account passenger moods and reactions to everyday elements such as natural light, acoustics and comfort. To this end, lead architect Luis Vidal and his team have flooded the building with daylight from north-facing skylights, while the gate areas will be open-plan and part of the main departure area.

The new terminal is a major boon for Star Alliance passengers, who will enjoy a significant reduction in transfer times since all the Star carriers are operating out of the same building. The alliance is touting an average transfer time of 60 minutes, reducing by one-third the time it takes to get from gate to gate.

John Holland-Kaye, who took over as Heathrow’s chief executive on July 1, having previously been development director, says: “Terminal 2 is the model of future terminals. It has been designed around the passengers, so we have really simple passenger flows. For instance, there is more space in security and deeper lanes.”

Next up in Heathrow’s evolution will be the closure of Terminal 1 in 2016, which will be then be demolished the same year. Terminal 2 will then be extended to become Heathrow’s main aviation facility.

The airport may eventually build a further new terminal should it secure permission to build a third runway.

Holland-Kaye says: “At that point, Britain will have the world-class hub it deserves.”

Singapore Changi 

However, getting to a world-class hub is in part a function of getting all the pertinent players in a city’s airport development plans to nod their heads in the same direction. So far for London, that’s proven to be an elusive goal. 

In contrast, for the city-state of Singapore, the understanding has always been that Changi is so closely identified with the city, that for many travelers, the airport is the city.

In his National Day Rally speech in 2013, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “The airport is how the world comes to Singapore and Singaporeans connect to the world... [and is] why we thrive as an international hub for business, for trade, for tourism.”

In the bigger-is-not-always-better department, both Dubai and Heathrow passenger numbers eclipse Changi’s. According to Airports Council International’s 2013 numbers, SIN was the 13th busiest airport in the world, hosting a total of 54 million travelers, almost all of whom were international passengers. 

But Changi consistently tops the lists of award-winning airports – including Business Traveler’s Best Airport in the World for 2014 – along with about 30 other best airport accolades last year. One reason: The airport touts a development policy of always building capacity ahead of demand.

SIN currently operates a trio of terminals, each with a particular appeal that is uniquely Singaporean. Terminal 3 sports a 16-foot high “Green Wall,” planted with hanging creepers and adorned with a beautiful waterfall. Terminal 2 has its own orchid garden and koi pond.

Changi’s fourth terminal building – the Budget Terminal – has been demolished to make way for a new Terminal 4 due to come online in 2017. T4 will be a two-story, 80-foot-high building about seven times larger than the building it replaces. This will enable it to serve an additional 16 million passengers a year.

The main attraction of the new terminal is a 1,000-foot-long Central Galleria that separates the public area from the airside. Featuring a transparent concept, the Galleria will provide full visibility from the check-in hall to the transit lounge. This area will feature local culture and a heritage-theme design, with retail outlets featuring façades of Singapore’s old Peranakan shop houses.

At launch, T4 will have 21 gates with Jetways – 17 for narrow-body aircraft and four for wide-body accommodating both network carriers and low-cost airlines.

However, nothing at SIN is standing still. In addition to T4, Changi Airport Group has announced Project Jewel, described as “an iconic mixed-used complex” to be built on the site of the parking area in front of Terminal 1. It will feature aviation and travel-related facilities, as well as new retail offerings and other leisure attractions. As part of the project, the old T1 is also due for expansion.

Terminal 4 and Project Jewel will help boost Changi Airport’s capacity to 85 million passengers a year.

The numbers are mind-numbing. But in the world of global aviation, there’s nothing to indicate the growth is likely to slow. For airports and the millions of passengers they host every year, the tipping point has come; expectations are high and the only answer is thoughtful planning and plenty of vision.  

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