It’s not yet official yet, but Dubai International Airport is now the world’s biggest in terms of international passenger traffic. In the first two months of this year, 12.1 million passengers touched down in Dubai, while traffic at London’s Heathrow reached 10.3 million over the same period.
The facility still has some way to go before it can claim to be the world’s biggest airport full stop. It ranked seventh last year, according to recently released data from Airports Council International, with just over 66 million people passing through the hub.
By the end of this year, it is likely to be in third place, behind Beijing and Hartsfield Jackson airport in Atlanta. Dubai’s traffic grew by more than 15 percent last year, far more than any other airport in the top ten.
That’s not to say that 2014 will be an easy year for the airport. Between May and July this year, both runways will undergo a “phased refurbishment and upgrading” programme, which will result in 26 percent less traffic over that period.
The bulk of the drop in traffic will be borne by the two home carriers — flydubai and Emirates — with the former shifting some operations to Al Maktoum International Airport.
Other airlines, like Royal Brunei, are also making use of incentives like free landing rights to temporarily move to the new airport in Jebel Ali. In many ways, it’s effectively a dry run for when Al Maktoum International gets into full swing at some point in 2020s. Still others, like Filipino carrier Cebu Pacific, are heading off to Sharjah airport — just 20 minutes’ drive (on a good day) from the Dubai facility.
How much of an impact will the closures have on Dubai’s annual passenger numbers? Probably not a huge amount. Part of the upgrades will include adding new taxiways on the southern runway — effectively allowing planes to exit the tarmac much quicker — thus ensuring that capacity will increase even further when the work is completed.
But while Dubai may be winning the traffic battle, it still has some way to go in terms of quality. At the recent Skytrax airport awards — a generally well-regarded barometer of international performance — Dubai didn’t make the top ten of the world’s best airports. Heathrow crept onto the list in tenth place, while Singapore’s Changi airport — replete with butterfly garden, waterfalls and the “Green Wall” — took up its now-standard position in first place.
Dubai did rank in eighth position in the ‘most improved airport’ category, and its Terminal 3 also won recognition. If you either fly with Emirates via Terminal 3, or via business class or upwards on another airline, the chances are that you’ll find Dubai airport a pretty slick experience.
But perennial bugbears — like the poor Wi-Fi and the queues at immigration during peak times, particularly in Terminal 1 — remain. And — let’s be frank — the staff manning the immigration desks tend to give the impression that they’d rather be elsewhere.
To be fair, the airport is in the middle of a $7.8bn revamp, which will take some of the heat off Terminal 1 by adding a fourth concourse. It’s also planning to beat those queues by installing iris and fingerprint scanners within about a year’s time.
If Dubai International Airport can match the experience provided by its biggest customer, then it can truly have a claim to be the best, not just the biggest.