Dubai's airports have growing ambitions

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Cynics might joke that the reason Dubai airport has been doing so well recently is the mass exodus of expatriates who came to get rich quick in the city's soaring property and construction sectors. But talk to Paul Griffiths, the man in charge of Dubai's international airport, and his biggest headache is not a rapidly departing customer base, but how to cope with passenger growth projected to rise 14% next year. And this at an airport that, despite a 1 million m2 (10.76 million ft2) new terminal being added last year, is often bursting at the seams.

Dubai has seen traffic triple in eight years to an expected 40.5 million passengers in 2009, seven out of 10 of them in transit. Despite the economic problems that have beset the statelet, the airport has withstood the global downturn better than most of its competitors. "We are very fortunate to be the only major international airport recording growth at the moment," says Griffiths. Although Emirates - responsible for two-thirds of Dubai International's traffic - has been the main driver of its expansion, the airport caters for more than 125 carriers, serving 210 destinations.

dubai international airport dubai international airport
 © Dubai International Airport

As chief executive of Dubai Airports, Griffiths is also responsible for Al Maktoum International, the seven-runway colossus slowly emerging from the desert at the port of Jebel Ali and part of the planned giant Dubai World Central logistics and commercial development.

Al Maktoum International will enable Dubai to go on growing, with total passenger numbers through the emirate's airports projected to top 100 million in the early 2020s. The first (Airbus A380-compable) runway and passenger terminal will open next year and a modest 1 million passengers are expected to use it during 2010.

Both airports will operate in parallel next decade, with the proximity of the port and a large logistics infrastructure likely to entice cargo operators to Al Maktoum International initially. Griffiths says the current airport will continue to expand. "We are under orders [from Dubai's ruler] not to create a situation where we are constraining growth through lack of capacity," he says. "We will go on investing until we maximise use of both runways [at Dubai International]. At the moment we have around 55 movements an hour, but we reckon we can cope with 63. This is likely to become a problem by the end of the next decade."

emirates a380 at dubai airport emirates
 © Emirates

What happens before then is open to question. Although the relocation of Emirates to the new airport is part of the long-term vision, this now seems a more distant prospect, with the flag-carrier unlikely to move until Al Maktoum International can handle its entire operation. "One thing is clear - Emirates won't have a split-hub strategy," says Griffiths. "They will only move once they can move their entire business and they don't have to make that decision right now."

Griffiths, a Briton, joined Dubai Airports in 2007 from UK operator BAA, where he was responsible for London's Gatwick airport, and the two roles could hardly be more different. While most European airport owners face a quagmire of planning constraints, environmental opposition, regulation and often hostile media, Dubai's rulers 20 years ago identified aviation as one of the foundations on which the emirate's economic success would be built.

They began planning accordingly, with an open-skies policy and a blueprint for one of the world's biggest hubs. "We take the decision to build now and add capacity now, rather than wait until it is too late," he says. "One great advantage is not having to deal with endless bureaucracy. Look at the 16 years it took to build [London Heathrow's] Terminal 5 and they added no new runway capacity."

Also, while many European airports and their main tenants are constantly at war, it helps that Dubai Airports and Emirates, although independent of each other, have the same long-term vision. "[Emirates chief executive] Tim Clark and I have an understanding of each other's role," says Griffiths. "The size of the prize is so big if we get this right. You'd struggle to find that sort of co-operation around the world. It does help having the same boss."