Forecourt of Dubai World Central (DWC) Passenger Terminal

Dubai is world-renowned for its place in aviation, as a hub location between east and west, the home of mega airline Emirates and one of the quickest airports to recover from covid-19 in the world. But how did it become what it is today? And what can we learn from Dubai airports’ success in facing the Coronavirus? Let’s dive in.

What are the key airports of Dubai?

There are two airports in Dubai, the famous Dubai International Airport which put the country on the map, and the even bigger sleeping goliath airport Dubai World Central.

Dubai International Airport (DXB) has a capacity of 90 million passengers per year, of which 63% of passengers were connecting through to other destinations. These passengers move through three major terminals that are essentially their own mini airports (with well over 50 gates each), taking up to 30 minutes to transfer between each. There is also technically a fourth luxury private terminal for VIP travelers flying private, but it isn’t connected to the rest of the network by people movers. The airport is so popular that the authority had to swell the terminal gates with 28 remote ramps connected by shuttle bus, and number the check-in desks beyond 200 for each terminal.

The airport is far more than a passenger hub, with vast cargo services that have all major cargo carriers calling in – dubbed the cargo village. The facility, which has been expanded three times since 2004, is capable of handling over three million tonnes of cargo per year. This role has been slowly moved to the new Dubai World Central, but its place in the cargo network of the world should not be understated.

Dubai International doesn’t stop there, it even has a gigantic A380 MRO facility (with seven hangers of overhauling an entire A380). In fact, it is so well renowned that many airlines operate their own A380 fleets to Dubai International for complete servicing (such as Qantas).


An aerial shot of Dubai International Airport

However, that is not the only airport in Dubai. Before 2018, Dubai International was facing a very real problem of overcapacity.

 “The reality is that the current airport here is now capacity-constrained,” says Jon Conway, Dubai airport-operations official, from inside the 16-year-old Terminal 2 to Forbes. “We can’t sustain the growth rates that we have here without developing somewhere else.”

What is Dubai World Central Airport?

Also known as Al Maktoum International Airport, this facility is under construction to become Dubai’s next airport. And believe us when we say that in order to top the expansive Dubai International Airport, World Central Airport is huge – the biggest airport in the world. When fully completed in 2027, it will be a vast industrial site that incorporates transport, logistics, aviation services, manufacturing, training and more in a special economic zone.

The airport site itself will have five runways (downgraded from six) and allow up to four aircraft to land and take off simultaneously. When it comes to capacity, it will be able to facilitate 160 million passengers a year (double that of Dubai International and upgradable to a shocking 260 million passengers) and 12 million tons of cargo per year. The airport will be linked to Dubai International by high-speed rail, and the city of Dubai (which is 37 kilometers away) by a new metro.

Thus far the project has cost Dubai $82 billion USD and it’s not even close to completion. Construction has been delayed in 2018 following news that Dubai itself was slowing down in growth – with its 2027 deadline even formulated to be well beyond 2030 instead.

Bird’s Eye-view of DWC Passenger Terminal



In a statement to Bloomberg, Dubai Airports said it’s reviewing the long-term master plan and that “exact timelines and details of next steps are not as yet finalized.”

To roll out this site, the government has been focusing on cargo first followed by passengers. That said, even though it has only just begun receiving passengers in 2016, it had over 400,000 passenger arrivals. Emirates, the local airline of Dubai (and its sister low-cost carrier FlyDubai) have flirted with moving their main hub away from Dubai international to Dubai World Central, but have yet to make the move. And it is questionable that they will.

Emirates CEO, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum (who is heavily involved with World Central’s expansion plans) told Simple Flying “The model when we were talking before was around A380s, and that’s gone. It’s not my decision. I cannot build it for something I know it is not going (to get) … I have to change the model, the gates, the building size…”

How did Dubai become such a critical hub airport?

The power of Dubai doesn’t come from being just a destination (although Dubai has quickly developed to be a tourism hotspot) but rather for transfer flights between different hub airports in the world. From Dubai, passengers can fly between Europe and Australia, Africa and Asia, with a single stopover. This is one of the major reasons why Dubai has positioned itself as the ‘center’ of the world (and the somewhat accurate naming of its second airport).

“In terms of charter traffic, 25% of Australia-to-Europe traffic has shifted from Hong Kong and Singapore to Dubai in the last couple of years,” says Daniel Tsang of Hong Kong consultancy Aspire Aviation. Jon Conway, Dnata’s divisional senior vice president of Dubai airport operations added: “I used to work in Hong Kong, and we thought we were pretty well placed geographically for all the China traffic, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. But Dubai is just such a convenient location.”

To take advantage of this, home airline Emirates actually times its flights to all land within four hours of one another ensuring that any flight in the network can then reboard and fly onwards on any other flight in the network. Because of this, the airport is actually quiet outside of peak times. Speaking of Emirates, it’s thanks to its hub to hub model with Dubai in its center that the airline has managed to carve out a space ruled by western and Asian flag carriers. Thanks to the popularity of this model, Dubai welcomes over 100 airlines daily, carrying passengers that either visit the city or move on to other destinations on other carriers.

How did they manage the coronavirus?

However, this whole model of excellence starts to fall apart in a world of grounded flights and pandemic fear. How has Dubai and its airports managed to survive the coronavirus?

Dubai has realized its strategic importance in the world of aviation and has become one of the first countries in the world to allow tourism back within its borders. To help protect citizens, all arrivals must undergo a COVID test on arrival (and some arrival countries need to present an additional test before departure), with anyone testing positive refused access. This effect, and the natural advantages of the country’s young demographics, have mostly kept the virus at bay.

“We are going to have to take whatever measures are necessary to protect the traveling public and our staff,” Dubai Airports Chief Executive Paul Griffiths told Reuters.

This even includes those simply traveling through the airport onwards if they come from coronavirus hotspots.

“Passengers transiting through Dubai… are required to present a negative COVID‑19 PCR test certificate for a test taken no more than 72 hours before departure, as well as to follow any requirements mandated by their final destination.” Dubai International Airport website.

As for the airports – regular cleaning, monitoring of staff, and employing the latest biosecurity technology that money can buy has certainly helped. Dubai International has even gone as far as to use COVID sniffing dogs in a world first, with an apparent success rate of 92%

“The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial” Cynthia Otto, director of Penn Vet Working Dog Center said in April while embarking on a test of dogs’ COVID-19 recognition abilities.

What is the future of Dubai?

For Dubai, its role in the aviation landscape is cemented and likely to last for as long as there is a demand for long-haul international travel. Its flexibility in destinations and vast capacity make it impossible for a rival to steal its thunder and only helps existing airlines commit to the Middle Eastern jewel.

If you want to be in aviation, there’s probably one town you want to be in right now: Dubai.” added Jon Conway, Dnata’s divisional senior vice president of Dubai airport operations.