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Middle Eastern airport business may be booming, but the real story lies further east, says Gary Noakes
Anyone associated with the blunders that dogged the opening of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in 2008 must have allowed themselves a wry smile with the news of setbacks to two of the world’s major airport projects this spring.
Jokes about Germanic efficiency abounded when it was announced that Berlin Brandenburg Airport would be opening in March next year, rather than on June 3 this year, with the German press queuing to condemn a rare chink in the country’s normally reliable infrastructure. A further delay to the airport's opening may also be on the cards, according to reports last week.
The Berliner Zeitung newspaper rounded on those responsible for the delay, due to problems with a fire safety system, saying: “The people of the world are looking at the city and laughing. The desert city of Dubai creates new islands in the sea and builds skyscrapers in record time. And Berlin? Berlin can’t even open an airport on time.”
Flight delaysThe Berliner Zeitung is incorrect, however, because Dubai may have got it wrong, too. Suddenly, there is a deafening silence from the normally bullish emirate about one of its flagship projects, the unassumingly titled Dubai World Central (DWC) Al Maktoum International Airport. Originally slated to be fully up and running with five runways by 2017, what noises there are coming from Dubai hint at a decade’s delay until full implementation and the target of 160 million passengers by 2020 now looks like a desert mirage.
Dubai’s existing recently expanded airport is coping with the current – and still rising – passenger numbers while the new airport awaits an anchor tenant, with airlines reluctant to commit during perilous economic times. The new airport is open for cargo, but its promise to bring the first passenger flights in 2011 is long gone, as is Emirates’ promised move there in around three years – now put back until about 2025.
A DWC spokeswoman said it had “not identified a date for the commencement of passenger operations”, but insisted the initial opening would be “well in advance” of 2017.
The two projects differ in that Dubai, unlike Berlin, will be a game changer, skewing global travel patterns as more and more people transfer there. Brandenburg, however, will not result in the wholesale shift of flights from Frankfurt, as post-war history has given Germany’s financial and business centre a head start in aviation that the capital will never recover from. There will be no move of Lufthansa’s long-haul fleet to Brandenburg, but what it does instead is tidy up Berlin’s messy airport system. Tempelhof, the airport used in the Berlin Airlift and closed in 2008, is already a park, while congested Tegel will close when Brandenburg, built on the site of the Schönefeld airport, eventually opens. Tegel and Schönefeld together handle 22 million passengers a year, but Brandenburg will initially have a capacity of 27 million.
Back in the Middle East, Dubai has not quite lost its Midas touch, as the existing Dubai International Airport is still seeing monthly double-digit growth in passengers and opens Concourse 3, the purpose-built Airbus A380 pier, early next year. Emirates will have exclusive use of this, with 20 gates and 13 remote stands for the super-jumbo.
Work has also started on a US$7.8 billion plan to boost capacity from the current 51 million passengers to 90 million by 2018. As part of this plan, Concourse 4 will be built and Terminal 2 almost doubled in size. No wonder that DWC was able to announce a delay in opening partly due to the “capability of Dubai International to more than cope with existing traffic”.
Big opening The big story in the Middle East this year, however, will be the 12/12/12 opening of Qatar’s New Doha International Airport. Qatar does not do things by halves, so expect Hollywood stars aplenty and enough fireworks to rock the foundations.
Built on 22 kilometres of partly reclaimed land, just to the east of the existing airport, the new gateway will handle 28 million passengers, 10 million more than the current one, which is bursting at the seams. The December opening date is largely ceremonial, so there will be no overnight switch, but the target for the new airport is to reach an annual total of 50 million passengers if the terminal is extended beyond 2015.
Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways’ forthright chief executive, is correct when he says that Qatar has changed from being a David to a Goliath, but his suggestion, made in a speech to the GTMC conference in May, that the tiny natural gas and oil-rich country is now “setting the global agenda” is perhaps a little premature.
The development is forecast to cater for Qatar’s aviation needs for the next 50 years, which means that Doha is no Dubai, but the pace of growth is nevertheless impressive. Five years ago, Qatar Airways served 75 routes with 57 aircraft and promised to have 100 aircraft by 2015. It already has a fleet of 109, serving 114 routes, and has a further 250 aircraft on order.
Al Baker told the GTMC that Qatar Airways was “born as an economic vehicle to carry the message of Qatar to the world” and in this, it has certainly succeeded – Qatar is a tiny country roughly half the size of Wales, with a population of only 1.7 million.
Well connected The region is milking its geographical advantage, midway between Europe and Asia and while Dubai might have got a bit carried away, there is good reason for the Middle East to have ambitions like this. We have been here before – Atlanta International, the world’s busiest airport by passenger numbers, grew as a transport interchange, not a final destination for most of its 92 million passengers, a fact underlined by its city population, which is a comparatively tiny (in US terms anyway) 540,000.
Atlanta will almost certainly cling on to its top spot this year, despite the growth of Beijing Capital International Airport, which in 2010 ousted Heathrow from second place in the Airports Council International (ACI) league of passenger traffic. Beijing has cemented its lead and now handles 77 million passengers compared with the London hub’s 69.4 million. Atlanta’s glory days are numbered, but something that will help its appeal is its new 40-gate International Terminal, which opened in May. If this construction has one big selling point, it is that it eliminates the need to recheck bags if your journey ends in Atlanta, an irritation after a transatlantic flight.
One similar development in the US that might swing it for buyers is taking place at another hugely important hub, Los Angeles International, where immigration and particularly transiting has long been reason to avoid the airport, if possible.
The new Tom Bradley International Terminal opens early in 2013, with a promise that it will process 4,000 passengers an hour, 1,200 more than at present. It will be able to handle the Airbus A380 at half the 18 gates. Despite doubling the size of the international terminal, Los Angeles will, however still be dogged by its sprawling layout of nine terminals and work programmes scheduled to last until 2016.
Miami is another hub planning to make life easier for international travellers. A new immigration and customs area opened at the airport’s North Terminal on July 31, with 72 lanes that it claims can process 2,000 American Airlines passengers an hour.
Looking east Upgrades like those at these three US airports are billion-dollar projects and a relief to the beleaguered transatlantic traveller, but these and even the Middle East developments pale when compared to China in the next decade or so.
Not many people have heard of Daxing, but that will change when Beijing’s second airport is constructed there. Work is already underway on a colossal development to the south-west of the city that could have as many as eight runways handling a minimum of 120 million passengers a year and a staggering maximum of 200 million. If Beijing Capital does not oust Atlanta from its top spot, Beijing Daxing certainly will.
Daxing is being constructed because Beijing Capital, despite its Norman Foster-designed terminal built for the 2008 Olympics, is already reaching capacity. When Daxing, 50km from Beijing, is opened in just five years time, a high-speed rail link will connect passengers with the city in 30 minutes. This timescale might seem ambitious, but Foster’s building, the world’s largest, at an incredible two miles long, was conceived and built in only three years.
Such ambition is a constant bugbear to those who advocate airport expansion in the UK, where the south-east currently has the world’s busiest system of airports, another title that will soon be lost to Beijing.
Beijing is symbolic of China’s drive to develop. According to Graham Pickett, lead travel, hospitality and leisure partner with Deloitte: “There have already been 45 new airports in China built in the last five years. There are a mere 52 airports in planning.”
All these are likely to be built by 2017, making the Middle East look positively slow off the mark. There is an important and obvious difference, in that very few of these will be hub airports. But the sheer scale of the capacity, which will bring dozens of secondary cities on to the international radar, will have an effect globally as trade links and China’s growing affluence prompt carriers to launch direct services, many of them from Europe.
Korea moves Another Asian country that will be more on the radar in the next few years is South Korea. Samsung, an iconic Korean brand, has just overtaken Nokia as the world’s biggest supplier of mobile phones. And the country’s booming industrial sector, with companies including LG and Kia, means it was no surprise that British Airways made Seoul the first of its new route announcements when it acquired Bmi’s Heathrow slots in the spring.
Seoul’s Incheon International Airport is perhaps a model for planners in how to do it. Opened 11 years ago on reclaimed land, it has won the ACI world’s best airport award every year since 2005. This is no surprise in a building whose attractions include a cinema, a museum, craft workshops, daily cultural events and a spa, plus a lounge for economy passengers that is better than some business class facilities elsewhere.
Seoul currently handles 35 million passengers a year with a capacity of 44 million, but a new terminal, due by 2017, will boost this to 62 million. The final phase, with satellite concourses and four passenger runways, will take this to 100 million by 2020 and propel it into the world’s top 10 airports.
It is developments like this that puts the Middle East into perspective, for while the growth of its airports and aviation sector is staggering, it will quickly be matched and in many cases, surpassed, by what is happening in Asia, which already boasts seven of the world’s top 10 busiest intercity routes.
The writing may already be on the wall. The ACI’s latest figures show Dubai International, long the world’s fastest growing hub, saw passenger numbers rise last year by 7.4 per cent, an impressive figure, but one which was outstripped by five airports, four of them in Asia, including Bangkok and Guangzhou, the Cantonese trade and industrial centre. It may be a novel experience for them, but the landscape is changing and the oil magnates may not have it all their own way in the next few decades.
Britain: up the creek? London mayor Boris Johnson may have been wistfully thinking of Seoul or Hong Kong when he mooted the subject of replacing Heathrow with an island airport in the Thames.
This summer, the spotlight has been on Heathrow like never before as it successfully dealt with the Olympics influx. But the airport’s long-term future remains uncertain as the government continues to push back its consultation into increasing capacity in the south-east.
Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, is as impatient as any. “We are waiting on the government to publish its framework. We want it to set down a timetable for when a final decision will be made. We want to see vibrant point-to-point airports throughout the UK and sufficient world class hub capacity,” he said.
The prospects for easing the south-east’s congested skies in the short term are not good. Boris Island is, according to some, a 20-year construction project, although Johnson points out that Hong Kong’s island airport took only six years. Meanwhile, the government’s current unpopularity – and the possibility it might not be re-elected – means it is unlikely to risk a U-turn on Heathrow expansion, or order the building of Boris Island.
As the Airports Council International figures confirm, Heathrow managed to squeeze another five per cent capacity from its runways last year and, while the debate about expansion continues, more use of mixed mode operation, with aircraft landing and taking off from the same, rather than different runways, can increase this.
British Airways, meanwhile, has grabbed 42 daily slot pairs from its purchase of Bmi, so it can finally get its wish to launch new services to places such as China, diminishing its ability to lead the expansion call from the airlines.
For passengers, there is a frustrating delay until next year or 2014 for the first phase of Heathrow’s Terminal 2 replacement to open, something which had originally been scheduled in time for the Olympics. The other bad news is that Terminal 1 will then close and it will not be until 2019 when the rebuild is complete.
If there is some small – very small – consolation for the south-east’s business travellers, it comes in the unlikely form of Southend Airport, close to Boris Island’s proposed Thames estuary site. Southend opened for regular passenger traffic in the spring, offering a handful of business destinations by Easyjet and Aer Lingus Regional, including Amsterdam and Belfast. The carriers were tempted by the 50-minute connection to the City of London via a new rail station 100 paces from the terminal.
Further south-west, Gatwick’s owner Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) continues its redevelopment and in June sealed the £807 million purchase of Edinburgh Airport. GIP promises “a very sharp focus on improving customer service and making the passenger experience better” at Edinburgh. In the medium to long term, GIP plans to attract long-haul services back to the Scottish capital.
As well as Gatwick, GIP also owns London City airport. “We have transformed them both, the plan for Edinburgh is more of the same,” said a spokesman.