Terminal force

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London Heathrow and Dubai International Airport share more than fantastic new terminals, they are gearing up to be fierce competitors for the title of the world's future connection capital

The day passengers around the world have been waiting years for is fast approaching. London Heathrow Terminal 5 and Dubai Terminal 3 will both open in the first quarter of next year, giving passengers their first taste of what future mega hubs may look like.

Heathrow T5 will be the new base for British Airways and Dubai T3 will be the new home for Emirates. Both terminals cannot come too soon for their local airlines and travellers alike as each airport struggles with strong traffic demand.

Both terminals are also overdue: Heathrow T5 by nearly six years by the time it opens on 27 March. This is entirely down to an incredibly drawn out planning process. BAA is praying that its proposed next revamp of the airport, Heathrow East, will not suffer the same protracted agonies.

Dubai T3 was originally slated to open in 2006. The terminal and the first of two new concourses will now open early next year, likely in March. The opening of the even more elaborate two-storey second concourse, which will primarily accommodate Airbus A380s, has been delayed until 2010.


Emirates will quickly outgrow the new terminal at Dubai 

Neither camp has pulled any punches about how the delay in bringing in new capacity has hobbled the passenger experience. At night, when Dubai is transformed into a transfer mecca, the concourse is so busy it is like a "fish market", concedes Ahmed Khoory, Emirates senior vice-president.

Heathrow has been a fish market for much longer but has really stunk since last August when a major terror alert in the UK led to the introduction of severe new security measures. BAA management is frank about its struggles to cope with the security queues at peak times. "There is no question the customer service proposition at Heathrow has been unacceptable," says Tony Douglas, the airport's chief executive, describing the past year's unpleasantness.

Price-regulated Heathrow wants to spend more to improve the situation and meet a commitment to cut queues, but will also need to charge more. BAA chief executive Stephen Nelson estimates that its plans to transform the customer experience at Heathrow will cost £8 ($16) per passenger by 2012. Airlines will find this a bitter pill to swallow, but the airport desperately needs refreshing. Asked if it has suffered from underinvestment, Nelson says: "If you were a passenger you would say yes."

BAA recently kicked off its campaign to raise charges at its regulated airports as it fights a proposal to break up its monopoly of the three London airports of Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted. "I am sitting on one of the great untold passenger value stories," says Nelson of its London hubs. "For a relatively small cost we can transform these airports."

Dubai's T3 has not received anything like the attention of Heathrow's T5 - no-one has even been given a sneak preview of the underground complex. Incredibly this terminal, which will handle 50 million passengers per year when the final phase opens in 2010, will not be big enough for Emirates. The carrier is already committed to doubling its all-widebody fleet from 102 to 209 aircraft, including 47 A380s. A senior Emirates executive says a simple extrapolation of its current growth means it will reach an extraordinary 600 widebodies by 2020.

By then Emirates should be resident at Dubai World Central, the amazingly ambitious, even by Dubai standards, $33 billion airport city being built at Jebel Ali. It will eventually feature six runways, three terminals and have a capacity of 120 million passengers a year.

This dwarfs Dubai's projected capacity of 75 million and Heathrow's 90 million with T5. The new airport will allow Dubai to attract even more transit traffic from markets like India and Africa. Passengers from these markets have habitually transferred through Heathrow and its traditional rivals Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris.

This has been Heathrow's competitive edge with around 35% of its traffic transferring today. The new security problems have caused it to lose this momentum, admits Nelson. In addition Heathrow's slow pace of expansion, including the long-awaited third runway, has also threatened to put it at a competitive disadvantage.

As a result Europeans are watching airport developments in the Middle East anxiously. With the capacity planned in Dubai and at other Gulf hubs the title that Heathrow jealously guards as the world's largest international transfer hub could one day be in jeopardy.