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Making history: Dubai International Airport


Asia-Pacific Airports celebrates the 60th anniversary of Dubai International (DXB) and reflects on its response to COVID-19 and planned future development.

Celebrating success is not something we did much of in 2020, so it seemed only right that we change that in our final issue of the year by turning the spotlight on Dubai International Airport (DXB), which recently marked its 60th anniversary.

In typical under-stated fashion, operator Dubai Airports, was never going to make a big deal out of the anniversary, and the impact of COVID-19 on the world ensured that the milestone date of September 30 was marked by a fairly low-key ceremony.

However, we believe it is worth taking a closer look at the milestone and DXB’s achievements since that opening day as it is a modern-day success story, literally growing from an airstrip in the desert to the world’s busiest international airport in six decades.

Driven by the vision of the then ruler of Dubai, HH Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, when DXB opened on September 30, 1960, it essentially had just a small terminal building and a 1,800 metre long runway made from compacted sand that was capable of handling aircraft up to the size of the Douglas DC-3.

Its basic facilities and the fact that Dubai had very few visitors back then – all a far cry from the commercial hub and leisure and luxury lifestyle destination that we know today – meant that the airport handled just a few thousand passengers in its first year.

DXB opened its first asphalt runway in 1965 – a year before the oil that would transform the Emirate was discovered off Dubai – and a number of small upgrades followed throughout the rest of the decade.

These included the extension of the terminal building along with installation of navigational aids, airfield lighting and aircraft hangars for its handful of airline customers.

New infrastructure in the 1970s included a three-storey terminal and the first ATC tower in the Middle East while the now asphalt runway was lengthened to 3,800m, new taxiways and apron were added and ILS equipment installed to allow DXB to handle aircraft up to the size of the B747.

The construction of a second runway in 1984 was followed by the founding of Emirates airline 12 months later, and it is fair to say that DXB hasn’t really looked back since the latter as its home-based carrier is now one of the biggest airlines in the world with a fleet of over 250 aircraft that includes 114 A380-800s.

Major new infrastructure additions since then have included Terminal 2 (1998), Concourse C (2000), Terminal 3 (2008), Concourse A (2013) – the world’s first purpose-built facility for the A380 – and Concourse D (2016).

The airport notes that its history is replete with examples of forward thinking and aviation firsts. It was the first airport in the Middle East to feature a gated terminal, for example, and states that its e-gates opened in 2002 were the first in the region.

Its pioneering ways continued in 2019 when it unveiled a 15,000 panel solar array – the largest at any airport in the Middle East – on the roof of Terminal 2, and earlier this year DXB opened a state-of-the-art Airport Operations Control Centre, which enables a collaborative approach to managing airport operations by providing information and analyses based on data collated from more than 50 systems fed by seven billion data points.

Although undoubtedly a slow burner – DXB handled just 2.8 million passengers in 1980 and 12.3 million in 2000 – Dubai’s pioneering ‘Open Skies’ policy and the addition of facilities to match Emirates’ ambitions have ensured that the airport has been on the fast track to growth for much of the last 20 years.

The airport broke the 40 million passengers per annum milestone in 2009 and in 2014 overtook London Heathrow to become the world’s busiest international airport when it welcomed 70.4 million passengers.

It is a title it still holds today and Dubai Airports CEO, Paul Griffiths, sees no reason why his airport cannot hold onto its lofty status for years to come despite the fact that Dubai’s second airport, Dubai World Central (DWC), has also been welcoming passenger since 2013.

The 86.4 million passengers to pass through DXB’s facilities in 2019 took its traffic total since opening to more than 1.1 billion passengers travelling on nearly 7.5 million flights between Dubai and 240 destinations in 95 countries across the globe.

Commenting on DXB’s 60th anniversary, HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman of Dubai Airports, says: “From the outset, DXB has been a catalyst for growth. Dubai International was born from the vision of the late HH Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum who understood the vast potential of aviation and had the foresight to build the airport and promote an Open Skies policy.

“That vision was carried forward strongly by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who effectively positioned Dubai as a global aviation leader.

“DXB, which is at the centre of Dubai’s proud aviation history, is testimony to the fact that great things can be achieved through vision, forward-thinking, innovation, collaboration and hard work.

“Over the next half a century, we will continue to strengthen our role in connecting the world and supporting the social and economic development of Dubai.”

In line with the vision and strategy of UAE’s leaders, Dubai Airports is not resting on its laurels and is focused on furthering its progress in the next 50 years and beyond.

“Each year brings new challenges and opportunities,” says Griffiths, who refuses to be downbeat despite the tough times endured by all in 2020 as a result of the global pandemic.

“We continue to advocate for standard protocols around the world that are key to safeguarding passengers’ wellbeing and accelerating the recovery of international travel. The development of a rapid COVID-19 test on departure is one such solution.

“While we are fully focused on managing our today, we have strongly set our sights on consolidating our leadership in the future. We are constantly exploring new approaches and technologies that can help us offer even more seamless, secure and rewarding travel experiences.”

Dubai Airports is actively pursuing a number of initiatives to restore consumer confidence and enhance the travel experience, including airport interior design innovations, the use of single ID biometrics to facilitate contact-less travel and an e-commerce platform that will bring added choice and convenience to travellers.

“We will continue to work with the sector to boost consumer confidence and raise DXB’s capacity as traffic grows,” adds Griffiths.

“While we can’t predict how long it will take for the industry to fully recover, I am optimistic that when the world will open up, the desire to travel will be stronger than ever. Dubai Airports and the entire aviation community here will be ready, just as we have been in the past 60 years.”

Dubai International is currently equipped to handle around 90 million passengers per annum, and although DWC will ultimately replace it, that won’t be for a while yet as the airport operator believes that it can raise the capacity of DXB’s existing facilities to 118mppa through continual investment in systems, processes and technology improvements.

Indeed, the operator plans to raise airport’s DXB’s capacity to 118mppa by 2023 courtesy of the introduction of technologies such as Automated Border Control (ABC) SmartGates, the increased use of biometrics at customer touchpoints throughout the passenger journey – such as the self-check-in kiosks and contactless biometric path introduced recently by Emirates at DXB – and eventually the introduction of biometric single token travel.

“The big focus is to make passenger processing more efficient by replacing a lot of the legacy technology and processes that really shouldn’t exist in today’s modern world,” notes Griffiths.

Like all airports, DXB is not alone in suffering a 2020 traffic downturn as a result of the pandemic, but arguably it is a step ahead of many other hubs in terms of its recovery due to its swift response to the virus.

It was one of the first airports to conduct thermal screening and COVID-19 testing in support of the health authorities, for example, and also introduced “robust measures” such as deep-cleaning and sanitisation to alleviate customer concerns about air travel ahead of the resumption of scheduled services.

While Emirates believed that it set new industry-leading safety standards when it introduced complimentary hygiene kits for its passengers in May that included masks, gloves, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitiser.

As a result of such actions, DXB welcomed the resumption of scheduled international operations by 13 airlines in early July when it effectively re-opened for business to overseas visitors.

Speaking at the time, Dubai Airports CEO, Paul Griffiths, said: “We have ensured everything is in place to welcome airlines from around the world back to Dubai as a growing number of bilateral agreements between countries conclude to facilitate the opening of borders and the gradual return of traffic.

“Our ability to resume passenger operations has been enabled by the significant and early steps the UAE government took to tackle the threat of the spread of the virus, together with the robust health and safety measures in place at DXB, and the excellent advanced healthcare services available here in Dubai.”

So, where are we at today in terms of the airport’s recovery from COVID and does he have any words of wisdom for other airport CEOs out there whose airports are struggling to survive the pandemic?

Talking exclusively to APA in November 2020, Griffiths said that he believes that every crisis presents an opportunity, and the COVID-19 pandemic was no exception.

“It’s an opportunity for the industry to take stock and consider whether the aviation business could be transformed by looking at the business model a little differently,” he said, citing travel retail as an example.

“Collaboration will not only be important but essential. For instance, integrating travel retail with the airline interaction in the air would enable the showcasing of products and services that we can offer on the ground during the course of an air travel journey.

“Out of every crisis there’s always the silver lining of a new business model emerging to enrich and enhance customer experience. Lockdowns around the world this year have really bolstered the adoption of technology in the consumer space and I am quite confident that the industry can and will use this as an opportunity to actually change travel for the better in the future.

“Today, we are working our way through the crisis and our recovery is well underway. DXB now serves 56% of the destinations, in 80% of the countries, and 62% of the airlines it did pre-COVID-19. While those numbers currently translate to just over a million passengers in traffic every month, we are registering steady growth and focusing on our response to the changing needs of our customers as the travel scenario continues to evolve globally.”

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