x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Dubai International Airport could shut to boost traffic at new Al Maktoum super hub

Dubai Airports won’t retain the existing 90 million-passenger base if owning two hubs hampers the take up of flights at its new Al Maktoum site, and could find “alternative purposes”.

Dubai International expects to attract 65.4 million passengers this year. Stephen Lock / The National
Dubai International expects to attract 65.4 million passengers this year. Stephen Lock / The National

Dubai International airport, which is being expanded to handle 90 million passengers a year, could be shut to boost traffic at a new super-hub under construction in the emirate with as much as twice that capacity.

Dubai Airports won’t retain the existing base if owning two hubs hampers the take up of flights at its new Al Maktoum site, and could find “alternative purposes” for the prime real estate, the chief executive Paul Griffiths said in an interview.

The airport authority is accelerating construction of Al Maktoum in a push to persuade main customer Emirates Airline to move in before 2025, and could lift capacity to 200 million passengers a year to boost its appeal, Mr Griffiths said.

Talks are under way with at least three more prospective customers for the facility, which opens this month and has so far attracted only Hungarian discount carrier Wizz Air as a firm client, he said.

“What we’re trying to work out right away is whether there’ll be an impact on capacity at Dubai International if we continue to operate two airfields,” Mr Griffiths said.

“We might end up with a situation where two give you less capacity than if you concentrate all your operations on a single airport. If that turns out to be the case, clearly we won’t be operating two.”

Al Maktoum airport, named after the emirate’s former ruler and located at the Dubai World Central aviation complex south of its main urban area, will commence passenger trials on October 12 and is scheduled to open to traffic on October 27, Mr Griffiths said.

Saudi Arabian low-cost operator NasAir, which had been touted as one of two initial customers, is undergoing management changes and may rethink its strategy, he said.

The three potential customers represent different regions and operating models and include one that doesn’t currently serve Dubai, the chief executive said.

Letters of intent could be signed before the passenger opening, and Dubai Airports seek to lure more carriers at the World Routes forum in Las Vegas this month.

Dubai World Central aims to become the world’s biggest air hub once fully open, with five runways and an annual capacity of 160 million passengers and 12 million tons of freight.

The Al Maktoum airport at its centre has so far been restricted to cargo operations, which it has been handling since June 2010.

Dubai International, known as DXB, expects to attract 65.4 million passengers this year, double the number it had when Mr Griffiths joined from London’s Gatwick Airport in 2007. Still, the airport, home to Emirates, the world’s biggest international airline, will reach peak capacity in 2018 even after its own $7.8 billion upgrade, which includes the Concourse D project, due to open in early 2015 after completion next year, and the site’s future can’t be guaranteed, Mr Griffiths said.

“If we don’t use it as a major airport in 10 or 12 years’ time it will be a very valuable piece of real estate, very close to the city centre, so we could use DXB for alternative purposes,” he said in the interview yesterday. “But it’s not a decision we have to make now. Options are on the table for consideration, but it’s not a decision that has to be rushed.”

The new airport, 35 kilometres (22 miles) to the south near the Jebel Ali industrial zone, needs to reach an annual capacity of 100 million passengers before Emirates can move in, according to Mr Griffiths, who said that shifting the carrier by 2020 would be “very aggressive” and that faster work is needed even to improve on the 2025-2027 period currently targeted. Early projections put the hub’s capacity at only 80 million by 2027.

Neither are split operations an option for Emirates, according to Mr Griffiths, with the airline’s business model based around the ease of passenger transfers between regular waves of intercontinental flights served by wide-body planes including the world’s biggest fleet of Airbus SAS A380 superjumbos.

In parallel with accelerated construction, Dubai Airports is exploring the possibility of developing the new facility beyond its maximum design capacity of 160 million people – more than twice the number who currently use London Heathrow, the busiest aviation hub in Europe – with a figure of 200 million passengers regarded as a possibility, Mr Griffiths said.

Al Maktoum airport may enjoy a temporary surge in traffic next year when the northern runway at Dubai International undergoes a resurfacing and lighting programme that will cut capacity by 28 per cent over an 80-day period starting in May.

Emirates and budget carrier flydubai will each lose more than 5,000 flights during the period and are in negotiations over a short-term switch to Dubai World Central, Mr Griffiths said.