People often forget that the growth of the United Arab Emirates as an aviation hub is a relatively recent phenomenon. Dubai Airport may now be one of the world’s most impressive, but 70 years ago it did not exist. There were no regular aviation links into Dubai until the late 1930s when flying boats arrived. It would be another 20 years until the first shovel load of sand got turned on what today is Dubai International Airport.
Humble beginnings with one sand compacted runway
In 1959, the then ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, ordered the construction of an airport four kilometers west of Dubai. Just one year later, Dubai Airport commenced operations. The airport boasted a 1,800-meter long runway of compacted sand, three turning areas, an apron, and a modest terminal.
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But in true Dubai style, that humble airport was soon upgraded. In 1963, work commenced on a 2,800-meter asphalt runway. The terminal also got extended, and hangers got built. Dubai invested in navigational aids and new airport lighting. The new runway was operational by 1965 and operated in conjunction with the existing sand runway.
The upgrade and the beginnings of the development boom across the UAE began to lure in airlines. By the end of the decade, you could fly to 20 destinations from Dubai. Not quite the 270 destinations on the departure boards in 2019, but a start.
Runway extended to take jumbo jets and Concordes
In the early 1970s, the runway got lengthened to 3,810 meters. It coincided with the arrival of the Boeing 747 and Concorde on the scene. Both aircraft types needed a lot of runway. Also, at the time, neighboring Bahrain Airport was attracting the lion’s share of airline traffic in the region, including some Concorde appearances. The competition helped spur along Dubai Airport’s development.
There was a lot of work done on upgrading infrastructure at the airport passengers don’t necessarily notice. Navigational, meteorological, servicing, and ground handling facilities were consistently updated.
In the same decade, work began on a new three-story terminal. The terminal got completed in 1978. The new terminal and modern infrastructure in Dubai saw more airlines start to land there. Perhaps even, swapping Bahrain for Dubai. Helpfully, the long-range aircraft of the era that jetted between Europe and Asia still needed to refuel along the way. This was back in the dying days of the Iron Curtain and before most airlines could overfly the Soviet Union on their way between Europe and Asia.
Air India, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Malaysia Airlines were some of the airlines that stopped over in Dubai.
The beginning of Emirates
In 1985, Emirates Airlines began. At the time, it was a simple little outfit, flying a Boeing 737 and a leased A300 between Dubai and Pakistan. But Emirates would go on to put Dubai Airport and Dubai on the global map.
Also, in the mid-1980s, Dubai finished work on its second asphalt runway, one capable of taking the biggest planes. It had the latest meteorological, airfield lighting, and instrument landing systems, enough to give Dubai Airport an ICAO category II classification.
By the end of the 1980s, Dubai Airport was handling nearly five million passengers a year. Of course, being Dubai, they wanted to double this and more. Ten years later, the airport was handling almost 10 million passengers annually.
The era coincided with the development and opening of modern-day Terminal 2 in 1998. This period also signaled the beginning of Dubai’s rocket-fuelled growth. At the same time, Emirates was roaring along in a kind of symbiotic tryst with Dubai Airport. By the end of the century, Emirates was flying for 50 destinations.
One terminal increases annual passenger capacity at Dubai Airport by 47 million
With Terminal 2 up and running and Terminal 1 successfully overhauled the previous decade, Dubai Airport began planning Terminal 3. It was due to be completed in 2006 but didn’t open until 2008. But when it did, that enormous terminal increased Dubai’s annual passenger capacity by 47 million. It was an Emirates dedicated terminal. In its first month of operations, Emirates funneled 500,000 passengers through the terminal.
By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Dubai Airport had enjoyed an average annual growth in aircraft traffic of 12.4% and an average annual growth in passenger traffic of 15.5%. In the latter half of the airport’s lifespan, much of that growth got driven by the growth of Emirates.
In the 12 years between 1998 and 2010, passenger traffic through Dubai Airport increased from around 10 million annually to 40 million. It was one of the world’s fastest-growing airports.
The arrival of the A380 sees development continue to Dubai
The next big shakeout at the airport was the arrival of the A380s. Famously, Emirates went on to become the world’s biggest user of A380s, the first arriving in 2008. That saw the airport spend hundreds of millions modifying gates and tarmac infrastructure to accommodate the big planes. While Emirates now hogged the tarmac in Dubai, it wasn’t the only airline flying into the airport.
Scores of airlines now fly to Dubai. Scores more have come and gone over the years. The introduction of longer-range planes in the 1990s saw Dubai and UAE airports in general drop off some airline’s radars, as they no longer needed to refuel between Asia and Europe.
But the development boom in Dubai and the wider UAE has seen demand for travel to and from the region increase significantly over. You can now fly direct to Dubai from six continents and most countries in between.
In the last decade, work on upgrading the airport has continued. Terminal upgrades and expansions rollout year after year in a kind of if you built it, they will come ethos.
And over the years, both Emirates and Dubai Airport have become more and more co-dependent. Emirates is facing some challenges these days, even before events of 2020 sparked a massive decline in demand for travel.
Dubai Airport has come a long way in 70 years
In just 70 years, Dubai has developed into an aviation mega-hub. The airport is staggering in scale. But some question whether it can continue this pace. This year notwithstanding, there is a clear trend towards point to point travel that overflies hub airports like Dubai. It is a challenge for the airport, but given its history, one it may be able to overcome.
Dubai may be a relative latecomer to aviation, but it has made up for the lost time. It is now one of the fastest-growing and most profitable airports in the world. In 2019, the airport handled 88 million passengers, saw nearly 410,000 aircraft movements, and provided direct connections to 270 destinations. Dubai Airport has come a long way since that first runway made of compacted sand.