Dubai’s Al Maktoum Set to Become the Mega Hub to Top All Mega Hubs

DWC - Dubai Al Maktoum

You may have seen the pretty pictures. The man whose title is so long that you know he’s important — His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai — has approved plans for phase 2 of Dubai’s Al Maktoum airport, also know as Dubai World Central (DWC), and it is a stunner.

You can understand while media outlets everywhere have picked up on drawings like this:

via Dubai Aviation Engineering Projects

For a mere AED 128 billion (~US$35 billion, give or take a billion), DWC will expand into a footprint the size of DFW’s vast landholdings. But unlike DFW which does about 90 million passengers a year from its 171 gates and Atlanta which is slightly north of 100 million people, DWC will have capacity for… 260 million passengers annually using 400 gates and five runways. This is hard to even comprehend, though note it will only have capacity for 150 million passengers when the first part opens in 10 years and Emirates moves over from DXB entirely.

Now, I know we all love pretty pictures like that one above, but I think we can also agree that they aren’t really my thing. Instead, as you all know, I prefer terribly-photoshopped images with an added bonus if it involves maps. So let’s go.

To start, I want to zoom in on the DWC facility itself. To be fair, I haven’t seen drawings that perfectly show exactly where and how this is situated, but using a few of the images that are out there, I was able to construct what I think is happening here.

In green you see the airport’s one lonely, 14,800 foot-long runway and the little baby terminal at the bottom. (I think there’s another runway to the southeast that’s maybe used for training? Anyway, it’s not a part of this vision.) But just knowing that these runways are 3 miles long helps to understand the scale of this project.

The current DWC is a joke from a passenger perspective. There are a handful of flights, primarily to Russia and Eastern Europe, that operate from the airport today. But outside of special events, there is nothing from Emirates or flyDubai, the two airlines that really matter. DWC really exists for its cargo capabilities today, and that will continue to be a hugely important focus in the future where there will be vast cargo facilities. But make no mistake… phase 2 is about passengers and replacing DXB.

The project will expand into the vast open desert that sits north of the existing site. There appears to be very little there today with the exception of the Expo 2020 site in the northwest corner that looks to remain outside of the airport’s development.

It’s precisely DWC’s location in the middle of nowhere that makes this so much easier to build. Sure, it’s about $35 billion but just imagine what this would cost if they had to acquire property and prepare the site in a dense urban location?

Dubai’s current airport, DXB, is very close to the city, just on the northeast side. It’s a quick 15 minute drive, if that. But DXB is surrounded by development and can’t grow to this epic level being planned for DWC.

The downside to DWC is, of course, that it’s where the sandworms live. Make sure to shuffle your feet when you fly out of there.

But seriously, it is close to the palm island developments that you can see jutting out into the ocean, and without question there will be some sort of high-speed rail to deliver people right into the airport by the time it’s built. I don’t imagine distance is going to be a real concern.

But growth is heading south toward DWC anyway. This is right next to a massive development called Dubai South which will have housing for up to a million people. This is one of those crazy built-from-nothing cities designed to make living/working/playing all easy and delightful. There will be housing, warehousing, workplaces, retail, and since it’s on the south side, I assume a new ballpark for the White Sox.

But this location isn’t even just about Dubai. Let’s zoom out again.

It won’t be all that far from Sharjah, the next emirate north from Dubai. Sharjah has its own airport that is growing to a capacity of 20 million people a year, but it’s never going to match Dubai. People will undoubtedly follow Emirates wherever it flies.

More importantly is Abu Dhabi in the south. The country’s capital city has its own gleaming airport and hometown airline in Etihad. But there’s no reason to think that DWC can’t easily attract people from Abu Dhabi, potentially replacing the Abu Dhabi airport at some point.

That’s really been the dream of many for a long time anyway, but this new plan will create an airport with effectively unlimited growth capability.

Is it insane? By US standards it sure is. But on the Arabian Peninsula in a world where every place is trying to outdo the next with something more incredible than the last, this fits like a glove.

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16 comments on “Dubai’s Al Maktoum Set to Become the Mega Hub to Top All Mega Hubs

  1. I worked on DWC when phase 1 was being built – that other runway is supposedly for a royal terminal and maintenance facility. No cargo and passenger planes would land there.

  2. The short runway to the southeast (13/31) is, indeed, used by Emirates Flight Training Academy for its ops. It is not connected to the 12/30 main runway complex AFAICT.

    Six years ago the promise was high-speed “rail” connectivity by Hyperloop pods into downtown Dubai. Obviously that’s not going to happen. How they address that will be interesting. There’s no real provision for HSR into the core today, and extending the subway that far would be a long ride.

    The pictures are pretty, and the new terminal complex will be great, if it happens: They’ve been promising DWC as a fix for DXB for 20ish years now, and this is still a decade away from opening. They’ve even promised that flyDubai would move to DWC, but quickly backed off that plan when it was clear it would be a financial disaster for the carrier.

    Besides, unless they close DXB I’d assume plenty of capacity will want to stay there.

  3. Dubai is one of those weird examples of the feedback loop where an airline contributes to economic growth, which in turns grows demand for the airline, which grows the economy etc etc.

    EK has actually noted a shift away from connecting pax and rowards local ones over rather past decade.

    I have 3 worries with Al Maktoum or Dubai World Central.

    1) Whose gonna pay for it? Typically there would be a grant from the gov but considering the shear cost, EK will end up having to pay for the new facility.

    2) Demand. Can the Dubai hub really grow that much further? It can to an extent but growth by rivals will stump that. 400 gates will never happen.

    3) Leakage. DXB has a fair bit of leakage to AUH with a bus service to/from there (and vice versa) but DXB is one of the worlds most convenient airports and pax may start going to Sharjah or Abu Dhabi in droves once that advantage is gone.

    Good news considering how much Sir Tim Clark has lobbied for it (and it gives me, an EK fan/observer another reason to fly them) but this will end up being better for everyone.

  4. Emirates had a whole new concept for an airline when it built DXB into a global hub due to the favorable geography in the Middle East.
    Now, there are multiple airlines in multiple countries in the Middle East and near countries (like Turkey) that are doing the same thing.
    The financial relationship between the Emirates esp. Abu Dhabi is always interesting to watch and the ramifications of DWC in the UAE haven’t fully been reflected in reality.
    The A380, the backbone and biggest selling point of EK’s fleet – will likely be gone in 20 years.
    Add in that other airlines – such as in India – are not willing to let foreign carriers take as big of a share of their local market as has been the case and the bottom line is that EK’s growth over the next 20 years will look very different than the last 20 years.

    Just because EK wants an airport with massive future capacity doesn’t mean all of the capacity will be developed or that it will be used. The changes are that DWC will be developed and occupied on a phased approach based on adaptation to realities.

    1. “The financial relationship between the Emirates esp. Abu Dhabi is always interesting to watch and the ramifications of DWC in the UAE haven’t fully been reflected in reality.”

      That’s the problem. The reality is that you have oil rich states in the Middle East & yet they choose to spend that wealth on vanity projects without consideration of what will happen if & or when economic winds change as the world transitions from crude oil to other sources of energy.

      Two case studies of this are “The Line” I mentioned above & “The Palm Islands,” both of witch have been scaled back do to cost overruns as well as the practicality of these projects. Now you can add this airport to the list.

      1. An airport isn’t a vanity project. A quarter of the world’s population lives within a 5 hour flight of Dubai (220 million in Pakistan, 1.4 billion in India, 371 million in the Middle East). While transit traffic is declining, O&D traffic is still a major lure as people from the subcontinent and ME continue to make their way into Dubai and similar locales-and Air India is going to still take a while before they’re a real competitor for the ME3 + Turkish.
        On top of that, cargo ops are going to be a huge driver of future growth-there is a ton of business there and large aircraft will continue to be needed-even as the A380 is retired from passenger service I feel sure that they will find some cargo usage for these huge aircraft, although not nearly as much utility as the 747 did with the opening front.

        1. You will never see an A380 in cargo operations because the top deck would be purely waisted space. All 747s, 777s, A330s, 767s, MD-11s, DC-10s all have to have their main floor reinforced which adds thousands of pounds to the operating empty weight of the aircraft. An A380 with a main floor and then the top deck floor you would hit the max takeoff weight of the A380 before you put a single pallet on the top deck if the main deck and below the wing compartments are completely full.

          Back to DWC this is 100% a vanity project because right now today you have a quarter of the worlds population living within a 5 hour flight of DXB and yet there is no need for 400 gates even with DXB’s current capacity. I think when it’s all said and done and construction wraps up DWC will end up with around 200 total gates, but I still think other airports like DFW will still come out on top when it comes to total yearly passengers.

  5. The Gulf Three have, of course, been a howling success in recent years in building hubs to take you from anywhere to anywhere. But why them? I’m always intrigued that pre-existing carriers could have done what they have done but never did. What stopped them? I’m thinking Egyptair, Royal Jordanian, Saudia, Kuwait Airways, Gulf Air, MEA.

    1. Kilmer – Money, money, money… and vision. Dubai had this grand vision and it had the money to invest (along with some Abu Dhabi bailouts along the way). The Saudis now have this same vision but the rest just don’t.

    2. Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon are flat out broke states whose flag carriers don’t have the deep pockets to build such a grand plan.

    3. Turkish Airlines has been in on the game too – the new IST airport is enormous.

      The restrictions on Russian airspace have been a significant tailwind for the Gulf 3 + Turkish. Their hubs are now “on the way” near the shortest feasible flight paths between Europe and Asia, and between North America and South Asia (incl. India).

      At the same time, demand isn’t bottomless, and it’s not clear if there is really space for a 5th or 6th scissor hub in the region.

  6. “and without question there will be some sort of high-speed rail to deliver people right into the airport by the time it’s built.” Also the eVTOLS will be peppering the skies by then most likely! :)

  7. Looking forward to watching a White Sox game in 120deg. heat when their new stadium is completed!

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