Developing mega airports both as a prestigious gateway to the country and a global hub has been part of the strategy of the big Gulf carriers since Emirates launched in the 1980s. Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar all have massive infrastructure projects under way that by the middle of the decade should leave the region with three of the world's largest and most modern airports.
Like the cityscape around it, Dubai International (DXB) has seen phenomenal growth over the past two decades. Despite being on a limited footprint, it is still adding infrastructure - with the new Airbus A380-friendly extension to terminal three nearing completion - even as an all-new airport, Dubai World Central (DWC) or Al Maktoum International, takes shape in the desert in Jebel Ali, near the border with the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
© Dubai Airports
Emirates plans to move to the new Dubai World Central airport in 2025
One of the central pillars for the continued development of Emirates is the establishment of a hub-succession plan in Dubai. This is expected to see the airline transition from the current DXB international airport to DWC 15 years from now.
The plan is for the all-new DWC airport - which opened last year - to be developed to enable Emirates to move over in one go around 2025. In the meantime, its current home is undergoing an expansion to cater for the airline's growth. "Work must start now if DWC is to be ready in 2025," says Emirates Airline president Tim Clark. "Personally I believe it will be 2030 [when Emirates moves]."
The new airport, which launched cargo operations in June last year, was originally due to quickly be developed into a multi-runway, airline mega-hub and Emirates was slated to there in the middle of this decade. But the development schedule was slowed in the wake of the global recession and Dubai's downturn, and the airport is not now expected to begin operating passenger flights until 2013. The first phase of the project will eventually see the airport operating five runways and handling 160 million passengers (of which 100 million will be transfer) and 12 million tonnes of cargo. "We think that capacity will be completed by about 2030," says Dubai Airports chief executive Paul Griffiths. The first phase of DWC's development will be largely driven by organic growth, taking passenger numbers to seven million through traffic spill from the existing airport and general aviation transfers. "The real push will come at the turn of the decade when we have another couple of runways and the first terminals up and running," Griffiths says.
When Emirates is notionally slated to move across around 2025 it is projected to be handling around 80 million passengers. This will take DWC's capacity to around 87 million. "The remaining 73 million capacity to take us to the full 160 million will be progressively developed over the next five to 10 years to enable organic growth of existing operators and the relocation of the remaining airlines from Dubai International."
In the meantime, the existing DXB airport is undergoing infrastructure developments to extend its capacity by 20% to 90 million passengers under its "SP2020" master plan.
The airport, which handled 47 passengers last year, is already having its capacity increased to 75 million at the end of 2012 with the opening of a dedicated Airbus A380 facility (Concourse 3) with 20 stands at the Emirates terminal (T3), and the next phase will add another 15 million.
"With Emirates' and FlyDubai's planned growth, we felt that we really had to accelerate our expansion plans," says Griffiths. "We believe the plan we've developed will deliver 90 million passengers by 2018."
Clark is confident that DXB can be adapted to accommodate the vast number and size of airliners that Emirates is committed to take in the coming years. "We're not curfewed, and we have the systems and processes that we believe can get the job done," he says.
"Funding is the issue as although some will be provided by the Investment Corporation of Dubai of which Emirates is a part, it will still need debt support. However by monetising the cash flows coming out of the new facilities, for example from Dubai Duty Free, we can get debt providers to step up and give us the money we need," he adds.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi, which announced its ambitions to be a global connector when it launched its new flag-carrier Etihad in 2003, is pressing ahead with its airport expansion, constructing a new Midfield terminal at Abu Dhabi International and developing four smaller airports within the emirate, including the desert airport of Al Ain - centrepiece of a planned manufacturing, cargo, training and maintenance cluster in the oasis city - and the downtown, business jet-only Al Bateen.
© Abu Dhabi Airports
Abu Dhabi, home of Etihad, is catering to upmarket tourists and sport fans
As Etihad expands and Abu Dhabi develops its own appeal as an upmarket tourism and sporting destination - the Formula 1 Grand Prix takes place at the start of the Dubai air show - Abu Dhabi International has been getting busier, with passenger numbers growing by around 12% this year and last year (when around 11 million used the airport). The opening of terminal 3 in 2009 took capacity from five to 11 million.
Work began in 2009 on the Midfield terminal complex, being built between the two runways. The new building, expected to be completed by the middle of the decade, will take capacity to between 27 and 40 million passengers. The development will also include new cargo facilities.
Doha's new airport will open next year on 2,200Ha of mostly reclaimed land next to the current airport and will be capable of handling 24 million passengers, rising to 50 million by 2015. Despite the recent opening of a dedicated terminal for Qatar Airways's premium passengers, the current rather cramped international airport with its remote stands has been the one downside of the flag-carrier's otherwise impeccable customer offering. The new airport will, for the first time, allow Qatar Airways to offer an experience on the ground to rival its arch-competitor Emirates.
Under way since 2004, the New Doha International Airport will be three times the size of the present airport and handle six times as many passengers. It will have the second longest commercial runway in the world.
The global downturn and other hitches have put the brakes somewhat on these landmark developments - Doha's new airport was originally earmarked to open in 2009 and Dubai's DWB was by now due to be fully functioning. Abu Dhabi has not put a formal completion date on its Midfield terminal. However, the intentions of all three emirates to consolidate their position as major hubs for the world's passenger and freight traffic cannot be doubted. The teeming construction sites at all the airports - cities in their own right - prove that there is the budget behind the ambitions. Welcome to the Gulf.