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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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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