UAE aviation returns to growth

12 October 2023

More news from the UAEs transport sector: 

Contractors start building Abu Dhabi light rail
Sharjah airport award expected by the end of 2023
Turkish firm wins $187.5m Dubai road upgrade

Emirates and Shell Aviation sign sustainable fuel deal
Abu Dhabi tenders Mid Island Parkway packages
Abu Dhabi to open Midfield Terminal in November


 

Three years after their operations stopped during the Covid-19 pandemic, the UAE’s airports are again in expansionary mode.

Globally, aviation is returning to pre-pandemic levels. The International Air Transport Association (Iata) reported that traffic during August stood at 95.7 per cent of pre-Covid-19 levels based on revenue passenger kilometres.

Middle Eastern airlines performed particularly well. They posted a 27.3 per cent increase in August traffic compared to a year ago.

With Dubai International, Abu Dhabi International and Sharjah International airports serving as hubs for Emirates, Etihad and Air Arabia, the rebound in international travel has positively impacted passenger statistics. 

At Dubai International airport, the world’s busiest international hub, passenger traffic for the first half of the year surpassed 2019 levels. It handled 41.6 million passengers in the first six months of the year, slightly more than the figure recorded during the first half of 2019.

Dubai International’s top city destination was London with 1.7 million passengers, followed by Mumbai and Riyadh, with 1.2 million each. 

The strong performance during the first half of the year means Dubai Airports, which operates Dubai International, now expects 85 million passengers to be handled by the airport by the end of this year – just 1.6 per cent lower than its annual traffic in 2019.

Like Dubai International, Abu Dhabi International airport reported solid figures for the first half of this year. Passenger traffic grew to 10.2 million travellers, an increase of 67 per cent on the 6.1 million passengers handled during the same period last year.  

The cities with the highest passenger traffic included Mumbai with 461,081 customers, London with 374,017, Delhi with 331,722, Kochi with 316,460 and Doha with 261,117.

Sharjah International airport’s passenger numbers also increased during the first half of 2023. It received over 7 million passengers in the first half of the year, an increase of 24 per cent compared to the same period last year.

Airport projects

The rebound in air travel supports the business case for airport projects in the UAE after several years of relative inactivity.

According to regional projects tracker MEED Projects, there have been $340m of airport-related construction projects over the past five years, a significant drop from the more than $2bn registered for the previous five-year period.

In Dubai, plans are being considered for restarting the AED120bn ($33bn) expansion of Al-Maktoum International airport.

Located in the Jebel Ali area close to the Abu Dhabi border, the facility is Dubai’s second airport. It began operations in 2010 and has long been planned to ultimately replace Dubai International as the emirate’s primary airport. 

The expansion of Al-Maktoum International airport, also known as Dubai World Central (DWC), was officially launched in 2014. It involves building the biggest airport in the world by 2050, with the capacity to handle 255 million passengers a year.

An initial phase, which was due to be completed in 2030, will take the airport’s capacity to 130 million passengers a year. Altogether, the development will cover an area of 56 square kilometres.

Progress on the project slipped as the region grappled with the impact of lower oil prices and Dubai focused on developing the Expo 2020 site. Tendering for work on the project then stalled with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020.

Al-Maktoum airport is needed because Dubai International is unable to be expanded significantly. One of the key future challenges is runway capacity. It only has two runways, and with built-up urban areas on either side of the airport, there is no available land to build new runways on. 

Another driver for the project is regional competition. Dubai International is the region’s largest airport, and Emirates is the region’s largest airline. Plans in Saudi Arabia now challenge that position.

At the end of last year, the kingdom launched the masterplan for King Salman International airport in Riyadh, which aims to accommodate up to 120 million passengers by 2030 and 185 million by 2050. Earlier this year, it launched a new airline known as Riyadh Air.

Midfield terminal

Abu Dhabi International airport is at a different stage of development. In August, Abu Dhabi Airports announced that the Midfield Terminal building would begin operations in early November 2023.

Now known as Terminal A, the project will transform operations at the airport. It has 742,000 square metres of built-up area and can handle 45 million passengers a year, process 11,000 travellers an hour and operate 79 aircraft at any given time. 

The project has been under construction for over a decade and has faced multiple delays.

In 2021, Abu Dhabi Airports terminated its contract with the joint venture of Turkey’s TAV, Lebanon’s Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC) and the local Arabtec Construction for the construction.

The joint venture was awarded the AED10.55bn contract to build the Midfield Terminal building in June 2012, and sources in the market say the final contract value is closer to AED20bn.

Local contractor Trojan managed the remainder of the works for the project.

An expansion of Sharjah International airport, meanwhile, is planned to increase its capacity from eight to 20 million passengers a year. Sharjah Civil Aviation Authority is expected to award the estimated AED2.5bn main construction works package by the end of this year.

The investments planned for the UAE’s airports and rising traffic volumes mean the country will remain an important aviation hub in the future. 

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Colin Foreman
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