Around 4km from what was at the time the edge of the city of Dubai, a little more than a decade before the UAE was established, construction began upon a sprawling wasteland to build a new airport. Operations there commenced in 1960 and it featured a sand-compacted runway capable of handling aircraft up to the level of a DC-3. Today, that facility – Dubai International (DXB) – has become a mega airport and is the home base of Emirates which is the world’s biggest operator of the superjumbo A380.

In April this year, DXB retained its position as the world’s busiest international airport for the ninth consecutive year, according to the Airports Council International. In the first nine months of 2023, DXB hosted 64.5 million passengers, exceeding the numbers from the corresponding pre-pandemic period of 2019. The current numbers were achieved while some other airports worldwide are still struggling to reach their pre-pandemic traffic. Ever since reopening DXB on 7 July 2020, post its partial closure due to the onset of the pandemic, the team at Dubai Airports knew that the recovery was an inevitable necessity. “I always knew the recovery would be extremely rapid. When there’s an obvious demand for a product – travel will always remain an aspirational commodity for billions of people – and you strangle its supply, it creates demand when the supply returns like you would not believe,” says Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports.

Aerial images of DXB in the 1970s (Image: Sourced from Dubai Airports Media Library)
Aerial images of DXB in the 1970s (Image: Sourced from Dubai Airports Media Library)

“I knew there would be a hockey stick,” he says on the trajectory of what that recovery was predicted to be. “The thing we didn’t know was when that turning point would come, and so we were like a coiled spring. We had to remain ready over an extended period for when that rebound came. And when it came, it was incredibly strong. Fortunately, we were ready. Other airports were not, but we made it our business to be ready for that incredibly strong response which we knew the market would dictate and hand to us.”

DXB upwardly revised its forecast for this year and says that it will welcome 86.8 million passengers. Geographically, Dubai is at an advantage by being around a seven-hour flight from most European destinations and an equal time away from major South East Asian destinations in the other direction. But Griffiths’ assessment of the success of the airport as a preferred hub isn’t so much its location in as much as its passenger experience. “I think we’ve understood, possibly in advance of most airports, that we are in the hospitality business and we are here to delight customers – they are the reason we exist. We are facilitating the most effortless move between surface and air transportation. More people choose to fly into DXB than any other point because they are assured of an efficient, effective, comfortable and human-friendly service proposition. That’s what has made us more resilient than other airports. Many travellers, myself included, have got some terrible horror stories about airport experiences. I want to make absolutely sure that none of them take place at DXB.”

Dubai’s DXB ranked busiest international airport worldwide for 2022

Being a leading mega airport, as Griffiths explains, means DXB has a constant target on its back. A decade ago, Dubai International opened Concourse A which was at the time the largest facility for A380s. Three years later, it opened the US$1.2 billion Concourse D at Terminal 1. Those major changes were executed under the airport’s Strategic Plan 2020 which envisaged increasing the airport’s annual capacity from 60 million to 90 million. But now that it has nearly hit that figure, he says that Strategic Plan 2030 (SP 2030) is being implemented to take the airport’s passenger handling capacity from 90 million to 120 million.

“We’ve already started work on the expansion of Terminal 2 through which a lot of the regional services go through. We’re now facilitating a higher quality of service and a greater level of capacity in Terminal 2 with the upgrade of seating areas, lounges, retail spaces, restaurants and bars – they’re all being increased in size and scope.

“We’ve also realised that one thing we are short on is aircraft stands. We are examining a project to expand the number of aircraft stands available. You’ve then got to have the terminal capacity to go with those aircraft stands, so we are going to rebuild one of our concourses, Concourse E, to create double the gate handling capacity. We’re also reconfiguring Concourse C to open up the gates to make it a much better customer experience and to create some landmark retail spaces within those areas too.”

Historical images of Dubai International airport (Image: Sourced from Dubai Airports Media Library)
Historical images of Dubai International airport (Image: Sourced from Dubai Airports Media Library)

SP 2030 isn’t just upgrading the physical infrastructure of the airport, but also upgrading the technology used within it. The Smart Gates, for example, are installed across DXB and DWC and allow select passengers – including GCC nationals and UAE residents – to clear passport control in a matter of seconds without having to interface with an immigration officer. Emirates also uses biometric recognition data to speed up the process of its passengers departing from Dubai. Using facial biometrics at Terminal 3, passengers can check in, access the lounges, clear immigration and even complete the final check before boarding the aircraft as their face is linked to their passport to facilitate instant identity verification.

“SP 2030 will have a very heavy bias towards technology. Building constant additions to our infrastructure is difficult in a space-constrained site and it’s also quite expensive to do. Every square metre of building space you create requires significant investment. If we invest in technology to speed our customers through our facilities, and we’re able to increase the flow rate of passengers from say 100 passengers a minute to 200 passengers a minute, with the same constraints of infrastructure you’ve suddenly doubled your capacity by halving the time it takes for people to get through the facility.

“Our customer satisfaction has a linear relationship to the inverse of the time they spend interfacing with
our product. So, if you can halve the journey through the airport from 20 minutes to 10 minutes, you’ve increased your capacity and you’ve increased your customer satisfaction without having to invest in
heavy infrastructure,” says Griffiths.

But for all the integration of technology and upgrading of its infrastructure, Griffiths acknowledges that DXB will reach its peak capacity at around the 120 million mark. That will then necessitate a Plan B. That plan B is the Dubai World Central (DWC) airport which is also owned and operated by Dubai Airports. DWC first opened in 2010 and all cargo carrier operations were moved from DXB to DWC. Intermittently, DWC has been used for passenger operations such as when more than 100 flights daily were rerouted from DWC to DXB for a few weeks during which the Northern Runway at DXB was closed for a refurbishment last year. Also, DWC hosted several of the special Match Day Shuttle flights that transported fans between Dubai and Doha during last year’s World Cup.

Concourse B at DXB (Image: Sourced from Dubai Airports Media Library)
Concourse B at DXB (Image: Sourced from Dubai Airports Media Library)

The future for Dubai’s aviation sector is one wherein DWC will play an increasingly prominent role. “We’ve got two strategies, one is mid-term and the other is long-term. The mid-term strategy is to move some of the regional services from DXB to DWC where we’ve currently got a passenger terminal capacity of about 26 million. So, we could between the two airports [DWC and DXB] get close to 150 million passenger throughput which will keep us going for quite some time – probably until the mid-2030s.

“But beyond that, I think the physical limitations of the expansion of DXB and the limitations of what is currently built at DWC will probably reach its maximum. At the moment, we’re working on a strategy to create DWC Phase Two which will be the expansion of DWC. It will require more runways, new terminals and new road and rail links to be connected to the new airport,” notes Griffiths.

“We’re in discussion about the potential size and shape of the ultimate airport design at DWC, but in the designs that we’re looking at the moment, DWC will have a capacity for more than 200 million passengers, possibly 250 million. The idea is to build an airport with a modular design where we can gradually add, without any difficulty or disruption, units of capacity to satisfy future growth within a defined design and a defined unit cost.

“I think technology and changes in modal transport techniques will drive a completely different view about what an airport fit for the 21st century needs to look like and what that passenger experience needs to be.”

Griffith adds that while plans are afoot for DWC to eventually have double the passenger handling capacity of DXB, the physical expansion of the airport cannot come at the expense of the customer experience.

“Airport designs, as they’ve got larger and larger, have corralled people that have originated from many different origins into a single place, forced them through a common check in, security and immigration process, and then redistributed them on the other side. That may be very convenient for the airport operator, but it’s not a very good customer proposition because the byproduct of that strategy is usually huge walking distances and an overbearing scale. The bigger and more foreboding you make an airport, the more difficult it is to navigate. The further you’ve got to walk, the anxiety goes up. The anxiety of scale is something we’re seeking to eliminate by making the airport experience still intimate for each passenger’s journey. Intimacy is the archenemy of scale – you lose intimacy with scale. And we want to make sure that the product is an intimate one,” says Griffiths.

As DXB and DWC pursue their growth trajectories, the issue of sustainability is not being overruled. Last year, Dubai Airports initiated a waste management programme to divert 60 per cent of all waste generated at DXB away from landfills. It implemented a food waste treatment plan to capture and compost more than 2,000 tonnes of food waste annually from F&B outlets, hotels and lounges across DXB’s length and breadth. With COP28 being held this month in Dubai, the theme of sustainability is one on which Griffiths and his team are laser-focused. “We’ve signed a deal with Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) to facilitate a huge expansion in the solar power generation capability of the airport. It’s going to be a ten-fold increase in our generating capacity. We aim to distribute that clean energy throughout the airport and to get to a point where all our ground-based activity is powered by renewable energy. Beyond a certain date, we won’t license vehicles that are powered by conventional hydrocarbon fuel. They can be electric, they can be hydrogen-powered, or they can be powered by sources which are from clean fuels – but we will not be able to license hydrocarbon-based vehicles in the future.

“We are aiming to have zero waste to landfill. We are recycling all of the used cooking oil to create biofuels. The aim is to ban single-use plastics which has been an initiative that we’ve had actually for quite some time with our concessionaires and we are requiring fairly tough environmental targets from all of our suppliers. We’ve got a green procurement strategy where we are sourcing a lot of our supply chain elements from renewable sources.”

He adds that while the airport is reducing its footprint on the ground, it’s also working with other stakeholders, especially Emirates and dnata, to hasten the development of sustainable aviation fuel supply and alternative propulsion sources too. For the first time last month, SAF was supplied through DXB’s airport refuelling system. Owing to a deal struck between Shell Aviation and Emirates, the former has pledged to provide 300,000 gallons of blended SAF – in a ratio of 40 per cent neat SAF and 60 per cent conventional Jet A-1 fuel – to the airline at DXB.

Airports globally are pushing forward with massive expansion programmes. Singapore’s Changi airport, for example, will nearly double in size with its planned Terminal 5 project. Due to be ready by the mid-2030s, the new terminal will handle up to 50 million passengers annually. Shanghai’s Pudong International is in the midst of a US$50 billion expansion, while Hong Kong International expects its US$18.5 billion upgrade to be completed next year. Closer to home, Doha’s Hamad International completed the first phase of its renovation ahead of the World Cup last year, and the neighbouring country of Saudi Arabia has announced that its new King Salman International airport will open in 2030 and is being readied to accommodate 185 million passengers by 2050. Griffiths, as he looks at the size, scope and nature of these mega airport projects around the world, knows what it takes to create thoroughly 21st-century airports right here in Dubai. “We’ve got to remind ourselves almost every day that we’re in a highly competitive business, and the only judge of whether we are being competitive and are at the top of our game will be our customers.

“Seventy per cent of our customers could use an alternative connecting hub, and we don’t want them to consider another hub because we want DXB to be number one in terms of their choice. Our customer satisfaction levels, and the volume and the number of people that come back, matter more than anything else. Are we providing a safe, secure, high-quality environment for them and embracing all the products and services that they want us to provide? That to me is the obsession that we’ve got to live every single day. It’s our licence to operate and if we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our jobs very well.” As the world’s busiest international airport for nine consecutive years, the team is on the ball.