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Dubai reveals massive plans for the world’s busiest airport

By Maureen O’Hare and Miquel Ros, CNN

(CNN) — When it comes to airport expansion projects, the Gulf States are abuzz and the competition is fierce.

A mammoth airport in Saudi Arabia has already set records for size, but new plans in Dubai are ratcheting up the race to be the world’s busiest airport by passenger volume.

Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd International Airport currently wears the crown as the largest airport in the world by area. At a whopping 780 square kilometers (about 300 square miles), that’s bigger than neighboring country Bahrain.

The Saudis aren’t resting on their laurels, either. The country is working on a new six-runway airport on the King Fahd International site by 2030, with capacity eventually for 185 million passengers per year.

For comparison, that’s 75 million more than the 110 million passengers the world’s current busiest airport by passenger volume, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, is expected to serve this year.

And this is by no means Hartsfield-Jackson’s first time at the rodeo. It’s held that position every year — except for pandemic-hit 2020 — for more than two decades.

Dubai, however, just made a huge play, laying out plans Sunday for a new $34.85 billion (AED 128 billion) passenger terminal at Dubai World Central – Al Maktoum International (DWC), the emirate’s newest airport.

The stakes just reached a new level.

260 million passengers per year

Since DWC – Al Maktoum International opened 14 years ago, it was always planned for this brand new airport some 20 miles southwest of downtown Dubai to become the biggest passenger-handler in the world.

However, now the plan is for the megahub to eventually accommodate 260 million passengers per year. That’s a full 100 million passengers more than previous projections for the airport and would dwarf pretty much every other airport’s operations on the planet.

“It will be five times the size of the current Dubai International Airport, and all operations at Dubai International Airport will be transferred to it in the coming years,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, said Sunday when outlining Dubai Aviation Engineering Projects’ strategic plan. “The airport will accommodate 400 aircraft gates and feature five parallel runways,” he added.

Dubai World Central is the newer of two international airports in Dubai. The other, Dubai International Airport, was just ranked the No. 2 busiest airport in the world, but its traffic will eventually go to the newer airport, according to DWC’s expansion plans.

The airport will be the centerpiece of a much larger scheme, called Dubai South, that envisages the creation of a whole new city in a 145-square-kilometer (56-square-mile) stretch of desert just south of Dubai.

This entire new district, of which some pieces are already starting to take shape, will have eight neighborhoods each allocated to a specific industry or activity, with a mix of residential and commercial areas as well.

“As we build an entire city around the airport in Dubai South, demand for housing for a million people will follow. It will host the world’s leading companies in the logistics and air transport sectors,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

“We are building a new project for future generations, ensuring continuous and stable development for our children and their children in turn. Dubai will be the world’s airport, its port, its urban hub, and its new global center.”

When completed, it’ll cover a very generous 70 square kilometers (27 square miles) – although that’s still less than a tenth of the land area of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd International. Saudi Arabia will be holding onto that world record for a while yet.

The region’s other challengers

At present, Dubai World Central’s primary role is as a center for aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul – “MRO” in industry parlance. It also hosts a number of air cargo operators (including Emirates Cargo, the freight subsidiary of the UAE flag carrier) and handles executive jets and some charter flights. Those cargo operations will ultimately handle up to 12 million tonnes per annum, according to the new plans.

As for the timeline, well, take note of the Sheikh’s words about “our children and their children.”

The plan is for the first phase to be ready within 10 years, with capacity increased to 150 million passengers annually. Beyond that, we’re looking at a decades-long time frame.

“The new airport will prepare the ground for the next 40 years of anticipated growth in Dubai’s aviation sector,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

On Sunday, flag-carrier Emirates took to X to announce its long-awaited relocation to its “future home” at Dubai World Central – Al Maktoum International.

In the meantime, though, it’s business as usual at Dubai International (DXB), which earned its No.2 busiest airport in the world title this month for the very first time, serving 104.7 passengers in 2023.

Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, confirmed in a statement Sunday that “DXB will continue to serve as the primary hub […] over the next few years as phase two of DWC takes shape.”

Keep an eye too on Hamad International Airport in nearby Qatar, a direct competitor of Dubai in the long-haul connectivity market, which is gearing up to expand its capacity to more than 60 million annual passengers.

This adds to other airport expansion projects in the region: the opening of a $1.8 billion brand new airport in Muscat, Oman, in 2018, the $1.1 billion new terminal in Bahrain in 2021 and, more recently, in November 2023, of Abu Dhabi’s grand new Terminal A, a 780,000-square-meter facility able to handle up to 79 aircraft simultaneously.

At the northern end of the Gulf, Kuwait International Airport is building a new terminal designed by renowned British architectural firm Foster+Partners, which will have the capacity to handle 25 million passengers per year initially, with the possibility of doubling it up to 50 million in the future.

And less than 20 miles from Dubai’s downtown, Sharjah International Airport, which is primarily home to low-cost carrier Air Arabia, is also increasing its capacity to 20 million passengers annually.

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