Dubai’s Airport Wars – How Al Maktoum Airport (DWC) Became Dubai’s Biggest Aviation Blunder

by Shaheer Ali
Dubai Airport

It may not be obvious to many, but Dubai has TWO international airports. It has its well-known Dubai International Airport (DXB), and its smaller twin Al-Maktoum International Airport (DWC) in Dubai World Central. Whilst the former handles the bulk of Dubai’s air traffic, the latter has always been the underdog when measured in numbers of annual arrivals. But, here’s the plot-twist. Until recently, little-known DWC was rising, bolstered by its proximity to Dubai World City and nearby Abu Dhabi.

Whilst DXB remains the primary door to enter Dubai, it was creeping close to its maximum capacity of 100 million passengers. During its peak in 2018, it welcomed nearly 90 million passengers. The government’s planners began to forecast a gradual end to DXB’s feasibility as Dubai’s chief airport in the long-run.

Suddenly, the little underdog saw an opportunity to rise and take over. Operating since 2013, the newer airport has handled a much smaller number of passengers, reaching not even a single million in 2018. But, this was all supposed to change, according to plans laid out by Dubai’s Transport Authority.

The Vision

Unsurprisingly, DXB is not only Dubai’s busiest airport, but the world’s busiest for six years running when measured by international traffic.

With Dubai eager to maintain its title as the world’s busiest transit hub, DWC seemed like the perfect contender to inherit the mantle from DXB. The roadmap to achieve that involved Al Maktoum’s expansion to a maximum capacity of 250 million passengers by 2025. Eventually, the hope was to see Emirates shift from DXB to DWC once the expansion was complete, leading to the winding down of its current hub downstream.

Looking at recent developments, however, these plans now look all but unlikely, if not impossible.

Why DWC?

Before we explain why, however, let’s look at why another airport was even being considered. Surely, is it the current one more than enough to keep Dubai at the top spot? It looked great the last time I checked, and no fellow traveller seems to be pleading for another airport.

To put it simply, the answer is “geography”. See, DWC sits on a vast amount of empty space, and enjoys an emerging neighbourhood of new residential and industrial developments. Being situated north of Dubai, it served as a convenient location to serve the neighbouring city of Abu Dhabi. In fact, some even speculated that the project would help merge both Dubai’s and Abu Dhabi’s airports into one ginormous national hub for the entire UAE. Which made good sense, since the distance between Abu Dhabi and Dubai is small enough for it to be adequately served by one airport.

Additionally, with the (now-cancelled) EXPO 2020 set to take place in the World Central, the airport was bracing for a boost in passenger traffic. Had it taken place, it would have raised the profile of the small airport, and its popularity amongst business travellers and airlines.

The Roadblocks

Despite the lofty ambitions, the expansion has faced repeated roadblocks and delays. Since 2018, reports have emerged that the completion of its first phase is now being “halted until further notice”. Dubai’s economic growth was reaching a new low, with 2019 seeing its worst growth rate since 2010, even before the pandemic could launch its onslaught. As a result, the planned relocation is now looking ever more unlikely, at least in the short to medium term. The inevitable cancellation of EXPO 2020 similarly brought an end to hopes of a revival in growth and popularity. Even if construction resumes, there is no chance that it’ll be ready by 2025 or even by the end of the decade for that matter.

The Road Ahead

Looking ahead, it seems unrealistic that DWC will replace its older twin anytime soon. The recent crunch in passenger numbers, the slowing growth of Dubai’s economy, and the wider stagnation of international travel, all mean that the aviation sector will be forced to remain on the “defensive” for the years to come. This means that many such mega-projects like this one, will have to remain on hold until the picture changes, if it ever does.

On the brighter side, however, the environment could certainly do without another nature-devouring international airport. Given that a large portion of carbon emissions come from aviation, perhaps the world has more than enough airports on its plate.

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