Published in April 2016 issue

Poised to become the world´s largest in a region where luxury is the norm

“We have such a beautiful airport in town, why build another one?” asked the taxi driver during our 50-minute journey from downtown Dubai to Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC) at Dubai World Central.

By Matteo Legnani

Truth be told, Dubai International Airport (DXB) is indeed a wonderful airport. Opened in 1960, it spent three sleepy decades until the birth of home carrier Emirates (EK) in 1985. Since then, its traffic has grown exponentially. In 2014, DXB earned the title of the world’s busiest airport in terms of international traffic. Last year, between January and October, it handled 64,947,687 passengers (+11.2%) and 2,068,844 tons of freight (+3.1%). By 2020, it is expected to exceed 100 million passengers per year. Its infrastructure has also grown, with three different terminals opening in the span of 15 years. A new section is being added to terminal 1 (concourse D) on the northwestern side of the field, giving the airport a total capacity of 85 million passengers per year. But DXB has physical limitations; the two parallel runways do not allow simultaneous operations and, as the airport is completely surrounded by the city, the building of a third runway is impossibility. When, as is expected in the next 15 years, passenger numbers will double, congestion will certainly become an issue.

That is why, about a decade ago, the Emirate began looking for an alternative site for its commercial aviation. With the city having grown like no other in the world, officials had to extend their search quite far outside of downtown— eventually selecting a completely deserted and flat location some 30 miles southeast of DXB, not far from the suburb of Jebel Ali, the site of the most important container terminal between Amsterdam and Singapore.

This is the unlikely spot in which what is predicted to become the world’s greatest global passenger and freight gateway is being built.

In late 2005, ground was broken for the DWC Aerotropolis, then billed as the world’s most ambitious construction project; not only a massive airport and integrated multimodal logistics hub, but also a luxurious residential, commercial, and leisure complex spread over an area of 54 square miles (140km2), consisting of the DWC Residential City, Logistics City, Enterprise Park, Commercial City, Staff Village, Golf City, and Aviation City. The project also included an MRO facility, a Heliport Zone with 17 landing pads, and several subdistricts with an educational and academic zone and a center for the supply of aircraft components and parts.

In less than five years, that desert location saw the appearance of a state-of-the-art 302ft (92m) high ATC tower, a 14,764ft (4,500m) 12/30 oriented CAT IIIC runway (completed in 600 days on November 4, 2007), 64 aircraft parking stands (10 of which are Code F), a fire station, line maintenance services, a fuel farm, and a $75-million cargo center initially capable of handling 600,000 tons of freight per year.

The first test flight into the new Dubai World Central-Al Maktoum International Airport (named after the late Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, former ruler of Dubai) landed at 16:50 local time on June 20, 2010, when an Emirates SkyCargo (UAE) Boeing 777F (flight EK9883) arrived from Hong Kong (HKG).

The airport officially opened a week later, the first carriers being cargo operators Rus Aviation (RLB), Skyline, and Aerospace Consortium FZE.

His Highness Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and Chairman of Dubai Airports, gave an address at the opening ceremonies.

“Phase One is the first step,” he said, “in a long infrastructure development project that, over time, will see our new airport transformed into the world’s largest global gateway and a multi-modal logistics hub that will play an increasingly integral role in the ongoing economic and social development of Dubai. It is a proud day for Dubai and an auspicious occasion for the future of global aviation.”

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“Although this is a long-term project, the need for a second airport in the near- to midterm is clear,” Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, told Airways. “Dubai International currently has capacity for 2.5 million tons of cargo while volumes are expected increase 48% to 3 million tons by 2015. On the passenger side, however, we expect to see numbers skyrocket from the 41 million that passed through Dubai International in 2009 to 98 million by 2020 and 150 million by 2030,” he said.

The second major step in the development of DWC occurred less than three years later—on October 27, 2013—when a 710,440sq ft (66,000m2) single-story, Y-shaped passenger terminal opened its doors. Following the unveiling of a commemorative display, a large delegation of local dignitaries and aviation officials toured the facility and welcomed the arrival of the first commercial airliner, a WizzAir (W6) Airbus A320 operating flight W62497 from Budapest (BUD) [this Low- Cost Carrier (LCC) also flies into DWC from Sofia (SOF) and Bucharest (OTP)].

“Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central will play a vital role in the future development of Dubai as a center for trade, commerce, transport, logistics, and tourism. I am impressed by the efficiency and convenience of this new terminal,” said the Sheikh. “The opening of this facility signals the historic beginning of along-term plan to build the largest airport in the world to accommodate the tremendous passenger growth and contribute to the continued economic and social development of Dubai.”

Jazeera Airways (J9) and Gulf Air (GF) A320s were also on the tarmac that day: the Kuwaiti Low-Cost Carrier commenced operations a few days later, on October 31, with two weekly flights from Kuwait City, followed by Gulf Air on December 8 with a daily rotation from Bahrain.

“The location, convenience, and compact nature of DWC are compelling attributes,” Griffiths said. “Airline and customer interest in this airport continue to grow and we hope to announce additional services in the near future.”

The first of these additional customers arrived five months later in the form of Qatar Airways (QR), which started two daily flights (now three) from its Doha (DOH) hub on March 1, 2014, using Airbus A320s and A321s. Half a dozen other airlines now provide service to points as far as Scandinavia.

The actual passenger traffic, however, did not match the initial expectations: in 2014, its first full year of operations, DWC welcomed 845,046 passengers, a number that was mainly boosted by carriers being redirected for almost three months from DXB, the runways of which were being refurbished. As expected, in 2015, figures dropped, the airport registering only 283,455 passengers in the January-September interval (-61,4%). This could be due to the global economic crisis, which severely hit the Emirate between 2007 and 2012, causing the postponement of the intended 2017 completion of the infrastructure at Al Maktoum to well beyond 2020, thus making the airport unappealing for new operators.

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Not a single passenger airline left DXB for DWC during the first two years of activity; however, in October 2015, local LCC flydubai (Airways, July 2015) moved a small part of its operations to Al Maktoum International, with a total of 70 weekly flights to seven destinations: Amman, Beirut, Chittagong, Doha, Kathmandu, Kuwait City and Muscat. Also, starting in the fall of 2016, UK operator Thomson Airways (BY) has announced the start of regular charter flights to London Gatwick, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow International, and Manchester.

Arriving at DWC today, it is difficult to imagine it as the future largest hub in the world. From late morning until 15:30, no passenger flights take off or land at the airport. Entering the beautiful and functional terminal at noon is a surreal experience; the building is populated by the airport personnel who run the security and passport control desks, the food court (including a McDonald’s, a Costa Coffee and a buffet restaurant), the Merhaba VIP lounge, and the 26,900sq ft (2,500m2) Dubai Duty Free shop. However, for almost the entire day, there are no passengers around; the 42 check-in desks are deserted, as are the 12 gates situated in the luminous departure hall and the four baggage carousels located in the arrival area. It comes as no surprise that the facility is described by Dubai Airports as a ‘VIP airport for its personalized service’. This airport is truly a paradise for any travelers suffering from enochlophobia, the fear of crowds.

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Plans are being finalized to gradually increase the capacity of DWC’s existing passenger facilities from the current seven million to 26 million per year. This expansion will begin later this year, and is expected to be completed by the end of 2017. As part of the project, the check-in area, baggage hall, immigration, and security screening areas will be substantially expanded, while the forecourt will be streamlined to ensure easier access to the parking and drop-off areas. Once complete, the passenger terminal will feature 18 bus gates, seven baggage carousels and 104 check-in desks.

Pending the completion of this project and the arrival of more passengers, today, DWC is essentially a cargo hub: after all freighter operators at DXB shifted to DWC by May 2014, freight volumes surged by 262.5% to 758,371 tons for that year, compared to the 209,209 tons recorded in 2013. In 2015, the growth continued, with 662,143 tons handled during the first nine months of the year, propelling Al Maktoum International to a place among the world’s 20 busiest cargo hubs for the first time. With its Boeing 777-200Fs and 747-400Fs flying regularly to around 50 destinations worldwide, Emirates Sky Cargo is obviously the main operator. Eight more carriers make this airport a very busy shipping hub for points throughout the whole of Asia and Europe. The announcement that should certainly change the long-term fortunes of DWC and revolutionize commercial aviation in Dubai arrived on September 8, 2014, when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum endorsed an AED120-billion (US$32 billion) expansion of the airport to be executed by the mid-2020s. By then, commercial aviation is expected to support more than 322,000 jobs and contribute 28% of Dubai’s GDP.

“Our future lies at DWC,” Griffiths said. “The announcement of this AED120-billion development is both timely and a strong endorsement of Dubai’s aviation industry. With limited options for further growth at Dubai International, we are taking that next step to secure our future by building a brand-new airport that will not only create the capacity we will need in the coming decades but also provide state of- the-art facilities that will change the airport experience on an unprecedented scale.”

When it opens in the mid-2020s, DWC will become the new hub for EK, Helen Woodrow, Vice- President Research at Dubai Airports, told Airways. “Whether other airlines will relocate to the new airport or stay at Dubai International is an airline decision based on airport product, passenger profile, and commercial interests at each airport,” she added.

The decision followed months of planning by the key stakeholders in the aviation sector, including Dubai Airports, Dubai Airports Engineering Projects, Emirates and handling company dnata. More than in its size, the new airport’s unique selling point lies in its radically new approach aimed at cutting the time spent in completing travel formalities and reducing walking distances, thus enabling passengers to make fast and efficient connections between hundreds of destinations worldwide.

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The vision for DWC is that of a next-generation airport that will take advantage of the latest technologies such as iris scan, palm scan, and RFID (radio-frequency identification) boarding cards to facilitate the seamless flow of passengers through the terminals. A compact terminal design will reduce walking distances.

The largest airport project in the world will be realized in two phases and will cover a total area of 21.6 square miles (56km2). The first phase, expected to be completed by around 2022, will add two CAT IIIB 14,764ft (4,500m) runways parallel to the existing 12/30, giving a total of three, all capable of simultaneous operations, a new 1,776,000sq ft (165,000m2) terminal located on the western side of the field and capable of handling 35 million passengers per year, two satellite concourses with a surface of 4,144,000sq ft (385,000m2) each and a combined capacity of 130 million passengers per year, and 200 wide-body aircraft contact stands (100 of them A380-capable). The concourses are designed to limit walking distances to no more than 1,300ft (400m). Each will be 1.7 miles (2.8km) long, encompassing three ‘nodes’. Six underground people movers will connect the terminal to the concourses (two lines each for departures, arrivals, and transfers), each of which will feature three stations to enable passengers to be dropped as near to their gates as possible. An express rail link will connect the terminal to downtown Dubai.

The second phase of the project will add a further two CAT IIIB 14,764ft (4,500m) runways, again with simultaneous operation capability. A 35-million passenger-per-year East terminal will also be realized, along with two more satellite concourses, giving DWC a total of two terminals, four concourses, and a total annual capacity of 260 million passengers. A further 200 wide-body aircraft stands will bring the total to 400, half of them A380-capable (Emirates’ double-decker fleet stands at 72 units, with 68 more on order). Six more underground people movers will be added, for a total of 14 stations (12 at the concourses, one at the West terminal and one at the East).

At the same time, the continued expansion of the freight facilities will increase annual tonnage capability to 12 million, handled through 16 cargo terminals. No date has been confirmed for this second phase of development; this will be determined by the evolution of market conditions and of the size of Emirates’ fleet.

Once completed, DWC will certainly rank as the world’s greatest airport in several categories— perhaps never to be surpassed.