The world's busiest international airport: Dubai overtakes Heathrow

Are you a regular long-haul flier? Then the chances are you have stopped in Dubai recently – and you would be far from alone.

Much is written about the staggering growth of Dubai, a destination that – whatever your views on its tourist attractions, or lack thereof – has become impossible to ignore.

Somewhat less is said about the equally towering ambitions held for the city's airport, a development that has planted the emirate squarely at the crossroads of the world's air traffic.

To relatively little fanfare, its inexorable surge to becoming the world's busiest international passenger hub was confirmed late last month - knocking Heathrow off the top spot.

Data released by the Airports Council International showed that almost 69 million (68.9m) international passengers had passed through the airport in the 12 months to the end of September, compared to 67.8m in Heathrow.

Dubai is also leading 2014 (January-September) in terms of international passengers, with a shade more than 52 million until the end of the same month, compared to 51.7m for Heathrow.

Paul Griffiths, the chief executive of Dubai Airports, said he was confident statistics would show the airport had ended 2014 with more than 70 million passengers, confirming its place as the world's busiest international hub.

It seals a rise that has been predicted for some time, but remains astonishing despite its inevitability.

Back in 2008, the then chief executive of British Airways, Willie Walsh, warned that Dubai's plan was "to become the hub that links the world's biggest aviation market, North America, with its fastest-growing, Asia – and this link would bypass Europe altogether."


How Dubai pipped Heathrow

Yet the airport had only started appearing among the world's 30 busiest airports the previous year, in 2007, when 34.3m passengers passed through. As several Middle Eastern airports and airlines competed for a greater slice of the aviation market (see our 2008 story, Middle East special: The new golden age for air travel), Dubai was by then clearly standing out.

In 2008, the airport opened its Emirates Terminal 3, the world's largest passenger terminal (and the second busiest terminal in the world).

Opened exclusively for Emirates flights, which accounts for around 50 per cent of Dubai's passengers, it doubled the airport's capacity.

The number of passengers arriving in the city since 2008 has indeed increased twofold, and the rapid expansion shows little sign of slowing down.

By 2020, Dubai authorities expect to welcome 98.5 million passengers and its aviation industry is projected to account for 22 per cent of the emirate's employment. Such is the scale of ambition that the current main airport, Dubai International, simply won't be big enough.

After a series of delays – unsurprisingly perhaps given the project's scope – the city's Al Maktoum International Airport (part of the huge Dubai World Central residential and commercial complex) opened to cargo planes in 2010.

It welcomed its first commercial flight in October 2013.

And once finished – completion dates are vague, perhaps due to previous delays – it will be the world's biggest airport with five runways and capacity for 160 million passengers annually, designed to ease pressure on Dubai International as the growth continues. By way of comparison, the world's busiest airport is officially Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International in the United States, where a substantial number of the 94 million passengers are on domestic flights.

There is, however, one fairly substantial crumb of comfort for those comparing the status of the UK's airports to the new pretenders in the Middle East.

Despite Dubai's leapfrogging of Heathrow, the passenger numbers passing through London's combined airports remain much higher. The latest figures available, for 2013, show Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, London City and Southend had a combined total 140 million passengers for that year.

But for how long?

Timeline: The rise of Dubai International Airport

1937 Aviation was introduced to the city (then more of a town). The first arrival was an Imperial Airways flying boat, which used the Dubai Creek to land

1960 Dubai Airport opened. It was capable of receiving planes up to the size of a DC-3

1970s A new three-storey terminal building is constructed, as well as a control tower, and more taxiways. The airport's single runway was also lengthened

1984 A second runway opened at the airport

1998 Terminal 2 was opened, increasing the airport's annual capacity by two million passengers

2000 Sheikh Rashid Terminal, also called Terminal 1, is inaugurated. This expands the airport's capacity from 10 million to 23 million passengers

2008 The world's largest terminal - Emirates Terminal 3 – opened, increasing Dubai International's passenger capacity to 60 million a year

2009 Dubai International is cited as the world's fastest growing airport among the top 50 major airports. Terminal 2 undergoes major refurbishment for the launch of flydubai, the country's new budget airline

The airport also became the largest duty free retailer in the world, reporting revenues of more than US$1billion (£666 million)

2010 Dubai World Central begins cargo operations.

2013 The first commercial flight lands

2014 Statistics show for the first time that Dubai International Airport has overtaken London Heathrow as the world's busiest international hub

The Telegraph, London