IN FOCUS PICTURES DUBAI The race is on to have the best, and biggest, airports in the Gulf

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“Welcome to Abu Dhabi’s best-kept secret,” says Tony Douglas of the giant Midfield Terminal emerging from a man-made canyon in the sand, several storeys deep. The chief executive of Abu Dhabi Airports (ADAC) admits the traditionally self-effacing emirate has kept a low profile on the 700,000m2 structure, which from 2017 will be the new hub of flag-carrier Etihad, with an initial capacity of 30 million passengers a year. This has been harder to do, however, as the development begins to loom above ground level and into view from the main highway into the city.

The emirate’s 1970s-era international airport, with its two modest terminal buildings, has struggled to keep pace with the growth of Etihad and slot demand from other airlines. The airport catered for a record 14.7 million passengers in 2012, and ADAC expects numbers to be nudging 20 million by the time the Midfield Terminal opens. Douglas is confident the new building, which will have 65 gates (including eight for the Airbus A380), and is located between the airport’s two runways, will give the carrier the room it needs to beyond 2030.

Although plans for the new terminal have been public almost since Etihad’s founding in 2003, the Abu Dhabi government has kept publicity to a minimum. “Once the structure becomes visible in November, watching it grow will become a spectator sport,” says Douglas. “By early 2015, you’ll be looking at it from the highway and saying 'wow'.” Etihad’s move to the Midfield Terminal will give ADAC the capacity to market the United Arab Emirates' capital to international carriers – something Etihad’s demands for space have made it hard to do, he adds.

Dubai World Central was hailed as the world’s biggest airport project, with six runways and a capacity of 160 million passengers. But development of Dubai’s mega hub – situated one hour's drive from Abu Dhabi International – is largely on hold. The city is instead focusing on boosting capacity at its existing international airport, to cope with the growth of Emirates and demand from foreign airlines.

Dubai World Central should have been on its way to becoming the world’s biggest airport this decade, had the city state’s financial crisis in 2009 not stymied Dubai’s infrastructure ambitions. The blueprint for the project – in the desert near the port of Jebel Ali – includes hundreds of square kilometres of aviation-related industrial, commercial and residential developments, with the airport at the centre.

However, Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai Airports, expects the new gateway – also known as Al Maktoum International – to “play the dominant role” after 2020, by which time Dubai International will have reached its limit of almost 100,000 passengers a year.

Emirates is understood to be planning to move its operations to DWC long-term, although Dubai International is likely to remain its home until well into the 2020s.

At the moment the new airport is playing a secondary role, catering mostly for freight operations. Opened in 2010, DWC is used by 34 cargo airlines. The first scheduled carrier at DWC, Hungary’s budget airline Wizz Air, began passenger service in October. “We expect [other low cost carriers] to follow,” says Griffiths.

The just-opened passenger terminal at DWC has capacity for 7 million passengers, although only a fraction of that number will use it next year. Plans for “phase two” of the development are “in discussion”, according to Dubai Airports.

Dubai Airports is also persuading business jet operators to move from Dubai International to DWC, because slot constraints are causing delays for their high-end passengers. Jet Aviation has established the airport’s first fixed-base operation.

Dubai Airports is also talking to some of the mainly low-cost carriers that use the no-frills terminal 2 at Dubai International about moving to the new airport. However, Flydubai – terminal 2’s biggest operator – has no immediate plans to relocate. In addition, some flights will relocate temporarily to DWC during a runway resurfacing programme at Dubai International next year.

Dubai International is still expanding. Dubai Airports is building a fourth concourse – to provide more gates for overseas carriers – while a third runway was “considered but ruled out”. The airport is near the old commercial centre of the city, and a new runway would only have been possible by demolishing large amounts of property surrounding the airport, says Griffiths.

Griffiths expects Dubai International, which will handle about 66 million passengers this year, to overtake London Heathrow as the largest airport in terms of international traffic by 2015. He says the hub could cope with “upper 90s” if Emirates continues to invest in Airbus A380s – but that, with two runways, would be its limit.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, in Doha, Qatar Airways is poised to jump across to its all-new hub, Hamad International airport (HIA) in early 2014. The development, largely built on reclaimed land next to the existing airport, has been mired in contractual disputes and had been due to open at the end of last year. However, with two runways, 41 contact gates – several of which will offer dual-deck air bridges for A380s – and an initial capacity of 28 million, Hamad International will give Qatar – at least for a few years – the region’s most modern airport.

With such high growth rates and the delay in moving over to the new hub, Qatar Airways is rapidly outgrowing the current Doha airport, which only has remote stands. “Next year, the current airport would be handling nearly 28 million passengers,” Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker told our sister magazine Airline Business recently. “This is why we’ve already started working on the final phase [at HIA], which will increase capacity to 48-50 million passengers, and should be ready in 2016.”

Further up the coast in Oman, work is well advanced to transform Muscat International airport, with the addition of a second runway and a completely new terminal complex. Bahrain is adopting a three-phase development, which includes the modernising of Gulf Air’s existing hub at Manama ahead of a long-term construction of an all-new airport.

The Omani government describes the construction of the new Muscat International airport as the “largest infrastructure project undertaken in [its] history”. The development, on land adjacent to the existing Seeb airport, will have an initial capacity of 12 million passengers, rising in phases to 48 million. The current facility handled 7.5 million passengers last year – an increase of 17% on the previous year.

As part of the new airport’s construction, the existing runway will be extended to 4,000m (13,100ft), and a second runway of similar length is due to open in 2014. The airport, which is designed to accommodate Airbus A380-sized Code F aircraft, is due to open within five years.

Bahrain airport is confident that the worst is behind it, following the collapse of one local carrier and the downsizing of its hub operator Gulf Air, and is close to launching a $1 billion investment programme to boost the airport’s capacity.

In the wake of the political upheaval in early 2011 Bahrain’s traffic had declined, but rebounded in 2012 to 8.5 million passengers. The recent airline developments will see 2013 traffic fall to 7.5-8 million.

The kingdom’s political problems “have subdued to a large extent... life is back to normal in Bahrain”, says Bahrain Airport Company chief executive Mohamed Yousif Al-Binfalah.

There is a short, medium and long-term development plan for Bahrain’s airport infrastructure, starting with an $80 million upgrade over the next 2-3 years to the existing facilities. “In the next five years, the government plans to invest $1 billion to increase the capacity of the terminal to 13.5 million passengers,” Al-Binfalah says.

A long-term plan is to build a completely new airport, but construction is at least 15-20 years away, says Al-Binfalah: “The initial steps have been to identify two potential locations, both of which would be on reclaimed land.”