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Luggage, airspace and size: challenges for Dubai’s new airport

An artist's impression of Al Maktoum. It will have to handle 700,000 passengers a day to meet its goals Dubai Airports
An artist's impression of Al Maktoum. It will have to handle 700,000 passengers a day to meet its goals
  • 260 million passenger goal
  • Airspace efficiency is vital
  • Handling 30,000 bags an hour

Sizing, air traffic control and passenger handling are among the challenges Dubai will face in building the world’s largest airport within the next 10 years, industry experts tell AGBI

Authorities announced last month plans to expand Al Maktoum International into a facility that will handle 150 million passengers annually within a decade, and eventually 260 million.

That is more than double the capacity of Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world in 2022 with 105 million passengers. It also exceeds expansion targets in Istanbul and Riyadh.

“Airports are always too small or too big,” says Henrik Rothe, senior lecturer at the Centre for Air Transport Management at Cranfield University in the UK. “It’s very hard to find the right approach to sizing an airport because there are so many changes in the time from the initial conception through design, construction and opening.”

Local authorities say the new airport will meet rising traffic projections for Dubai. 

According to the International Air Transport Association, Middle Eastern airlines experienced a nearly 11 percent growth in demand from March 2023 to March 2024, compared with almost 14 percent globally.

At completion Al Maktoum’s five parallel runways, compared with two at Dubai International, are slated to serve 400 gates. 

“Traffic management operations then become very complicated because, for example, you may have three aeroplanes landing side-by-side, and in between there will be two aeroplanes taking off,” says Amedeo Odoni, a professor emeritus of aeronautics, astronautics and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ensuring sufficient airspace capacity for this level of traffic is another critical challenge facing Dubai, but one that authorities have begun work on in 2017 with a roadmap until 2040.

“Airports can only ever be as efficient as the airspace that supports them,” Andy Foxhall, director for international accounts & partnerships in Dubai at NATS (National Air Traffic Services), said in an email. 

“As the airport grows, the airspace surrounding it – including the procedures managing flights in and out of the airport – must be updated to ensure it can safely and efficiently manage the increased levels of traffic, whilst at the same time minimising fuel burn and emissions.”

Meanwhile, on the ground, 260 million passengers a year translates into more than 700,000 passengers per day on average passing through Al Maktoum.

Odoni says tackling the associated luggage is also difficult and costly. Denver International Airport, for example, served nearly 80 million people in 2022 and is installing a new baggage handling system for $500 million.

Dubai promises that luggage will move “through an underground network of galleries and batch centres, able to handle up to 30,000 bags per hour” and “be delivered directly to the aircraft stands through pop-up hatches”. 

How to best harness technology is another big question facing Dubai aviation chiefs.

Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths said last week that people will be able to go through check-in, immigration and security and other formalities before arriving at the facility.

To provide a “seamless passenger journey” from home to boarding, Dubai will have to boost usage of face recognition and biometric identification and deploy artificial intelligence, says Viktoriia Ivannikova, an assistant professor in aviation management at Dublin City University.

That the emirate is starting from scratch in the buildout of the airport is an advantage, according to Rothe, as it is free of any current physical constraints to the adoption of such technology.

On the sustainability front, Rothe adds, infrastructure that presently accommodates conventional fuels might also work with some “green” fuels, but one especially promising source under development – hydrogen – needs different piping, storage and delivery systems.

Both Boeing and Airbus pledge to bring their first hydrogen-powered commercial plane to market by 2035. That is in line with the expected completion of the first phase of Al Matkoum’s expansion. 

“[Authorities] need to decide whether they are including any form of hydrogen infrastructure in the current project or leave space to implement it later,” Rothe says.

Heavy rainfall in recent weeks disrupted DXB’s operations and brought home the impact of a changing climate. The new Al Maktoum will have to account for more frequent extreme weather events, industry experts say.

“There is also a question about whether Dubai is ready as a city, since more people will arrive,” Ivannikova says. “It’ll need measures to protect the environment as there will be more pressure on it.”

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