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Transport / Mass transit

Dubai is spending $32bn on building the world's largest airport

Everything seems to be about airports at the moment, doesn’t it? We’ve had the continuing row over where London will put its next runway. We’ve had Mexico City’s giant spider.

And now, Dubai has joined the fray. Earlier this week, Associated Press reported that the emirate’s rulers have endorsed a $32bn investment plan to expand the city’s second airport that’ll turn it into the (this’ll shock you) “world’s biggest”.

The distressingly named Dubai World Central – Al Maktoum International Airport (a tribute to a late ruler) is the core of the broader Dubai World Central residential/commercial/logistical/golfing development in the desert south of Dubai. It only opened in June 2010, and for the first three years of its life was mostly a freight terminal. Here’s its location, compared to the far more central Dubai International Airport:

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Regular passenger flights didn’t begin until last October; it has one runway and one terminal building. It was always meant to be quite a lot bigger – but as with so much else, the financial crash put paid to that, the existing airport opened late, and plans that were originally meant to be completed by 2017 will now be done by 2027 at the earliest.

But, with Dubai growing increasingly economically confident once again, this week its rulers announced that plans were back on the table. Ultimately, the airport will have five different runways, spaced far enough apart that they can all be used at once. 

This rendering shows the proposed layout: 

In the first stage of the expansion alone, the new airport will add two more runways, and enough terminal space to handle 120m passengers a year. To put that number in context, it currently handles 5m; the busiest airport in the world, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, handled 94m last year.

Dubai is well known for its faintly Ozymandian approach to capital expenditure, but for once, this might not be as hubristic as it sounds. In 2012, the city’s existing major airport, Dubai International, was the 10th busiest in the world. In 2013, after passenger numbers jumped 15 per cent, it was 7th. This year, if the numbers hold up, it’ll overtake rivals, including London Heathrow, to end up in third place. The idea that Dubai will be the site of the world’s busiest airport in a decade or so is entirely plausible.

Much of this success can be explained by simple geography. The busiest airports in the world tend to be “hubs“, which offer so many flights to so many places that they make convenient places to make connections. To receive 120m passengers a year, Dubai doesn’t need to find 120m visitors: just 120m people making journeys for which Dubai is a natural place to change planes. Since the city is basically slap-bang in the middle of the world’s largest landmass, it often is.

Dubai World Central isn’t the only airport in the region being expanded: a new concourse at Dubai International is due to open next year, too, to facilitate its rise up the league tables. Nonetheless, its main airline, the government-owned Emirates, is upping sticks to the new facility as soon as it’s ready to free up space for other carriers.

When will that be? Paul Griffiths, the chief executive of the government-backed Dubai Airports operator, told AP that the first phase should take six to eight years. “It’s a very aggressive timescale… but I think that we have a track record here of doing remarkable things in a remarkably challenging timeframe.” Look upon my works, ye mighty.
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