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food / travel

Another Dubai Superlative: Inside The New No. 1 International Airport

Located in the middle of the desert, DXB airport now surpasses London's Heathrow in international travelers. Part museum, part high-end shopping gallery, it's a global wonder.

At Dubai's International Airport
At Dubai's International Airport
Claude Soula

DUBAI — It is only 6 a.m. in Dubai, but a very dense crowd has already gathered at the giant shopping center like it's the first day of sales. It seems the entire world is here under the oval vault made of glass and concrete: Asians, Africans, Europeans and Emiratis, of all ages and social classes, looking for the perfect duty-free deal at Dubai International Airport (DBX).

There simply aren't enough superlatives to describe the place: more space, more terminals, more shops, and now more international travelers than any other airport on the planet.

The Dubai airport was built 30 years ago, and it has just surpassed London's Heathrow in terms of hosting the most international traffic in the world: 70.5 million travelers landed or passed through the emirate in 2014.

“We gain around nine million travelers every year,” says Paul Griffiths, the British CEO of Dubai Airports, which runs both DBX and Al Maktoum International. He has set a three-year goal for DBX to outrank the Atlanta airport, which is the most visited one in the world thanks to domestic traffic in the U.S.

Growth at all costs

Griffiths could easily rise to the task. He can count on DXB’s strongest asset: Terminal 3, a one-kilometer-long hallway supported by giant, antique-style concrete pillars covered with bright lights. There are waterfalls on the walls, Japanese gardens and huge elevators. There are perhaps more beautiful places of the same kind — but not more impressive ones. Finished in 2008, the terminal is one of the largest buildings in the world, at 1.5 million square meters.

The emirate is obsessed with economic development, and is ready to offer unbeatable prices to dominate the aerial world. "A Boeing 777 pays $5,100 to land at our airport," Griffiths explains. "In Amsterdam, it would be $13,600, in Paris $22,000 and in London $53,000. The airport is owned by the state, it is a division of the Ministry of Finance. We want to make business easier and bring the maximum number of airplanes without charging exorbitant prices."

No strike, no union

For Air France, which has a daily flight to Dubai, it's only a tiny advantage. But for the local airline Emirates, which is also owned by the Dubai government, it represents an annual savings of 400 million euros. Companies from the Persian Gulf aren't responsible for making social contributions for their workers either. Employees pay for their own health care, retirement and education, and the country has no strikes or unions.

It's not easy to go behind the scenes at DXB to see how the airport's workers are treated. But the porters and staff tend to be immigrant workers, mostly Indians whose passports are kept by their employers during their stay.

The Western companies — especially the American ones — object to the unlevel playing field, but they'll never be able to change the reality that, in Dubai, everything has been made to attract international traffic. “The airport, the Emirates airline and the civil aviation managers all have the same president, Ahmed al Maktoum," Griffiths explains. And Maktoum is the uncle of Mohammed al Maktoum, the man who runs Dubai. "They coordinate their actions, and that gives us all a great efficiency."

The ballet of flights

The CEO takes great care of Emirates. He even rearranged Terminal 3 so that it could accommodate the giant Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger airliner. Three times a day, a perfectly choreographed ballet happens in Terminal 3: A380s and Boeing 777s come from all around the world to deliver passengers, 30% of whom stay in Dubai and fill up the city's hotels. Many others shop while awaiting their flights, last year spending almost $2 billion, another world record.

To attract new clients, DXB is a place of constant activity. "The airport works 24 hours a day," says Thierry Antinori, vice president and commercial director at Emirates. "This allows us to make our planes profitable, as they are the most modern ones in the world."

The company can also constantly renew its air fleet, open new lines, sponsor soccer clubs and offer more luxurious services than its competitors, such as the limousine service that picks up and drops off its business-class clients.

A fourth of GDP

Antinori says the goal isn't to be the cheapest airline but to offer the best price-quality ratio," he says, who predicts continued growth of the company. "We open five new lines on average every year. It even went up to eight and 10 these last three years."

That required an $8.3 billion investment in the airport, but the return on investment has been undeniable, according to Oxford Economics.

“The aviation sector generated $26.7 billion for Dubai’s economy in 2013, almost 27% of the emirate’s GDP," it reported. That represents 416,500, or one in five, jobs in Dubai.

Without planes, there would be neither the rich tourism industry nor the towering real estate boom. "Here, we get that aviation is a strength for the whole economy, whereas Europeans only see the bad sides and the limits of its development," Antinori says.

Dubai Al Maktoum

The Al Maktoum family has set some new crazy objectives, including a $32 billion expansion plan of the emirate's second airport.

“It is a real need," Antinori says. "DXB will eventually reach its full capacity of 100 million travelers every year. If Emirates wants to keep growing, it will need new space."

The development project is staggering. Assuming it is fully funded, the future Dubai Al Maktoum airport will boast five or six runways — DXB has only two — and will welcome 150 million to 180 million travelers every year. It will stretch over 140 square kilometers of desert, providing the government can fund the 10-year project.

The emirate will do everything to bankroll it because, as Griffiths explains, "We are the power of this country's economy: We fill up its hotels, its shops, and we nourish its real estate. If we stop our growth, we stop Dubai."

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Photo of Syrian civilians inspecting a destroyed residential building in Idlib after the earthquake

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