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The grand plan for DWC finally gets the go-ahead

After years of waiting, we have a timescale for delivery of what will be the world’s largest airport

Dubai World Central DWC Dubai Airports
An artist's impression of the finished DWC: ‘If the reality turns out to be half as good as those initial visions, then this is going to be something very, very special’

Finally, at last, akhiran. We have an official announcement regarding the future of Dubai Al Maktoum International Airport, commonly known throughout the airline industry and everyone in the UAE as Dubai World Central or DWC.

This weekend the necessary approvals were given to start work on the expansion of Dubai’s second airport. 

The current thinking is that the existing DXB facility will be closed within the next 10 years. 

The $35 billion investment in DWC will be one of the largest airport projects in the world. It will have four additional runways, with capacity for 260 million passengers, more than double DXB’s 120 million.

It’s big, bold, and absolutely Dubai in its intent. But DWC is intended to be more than just an airport. It’s a city!

Although the weekend’s announcement is an official kick-off, it could be described as kicking off the second half or phase two of a plan that seemed to stall.

DWC first opened back in 2010, but the original ambitions have been delayed by a combination of changing market circumstances and the creation of additional capacity at DXB. 

The vision for DWC has always been for the development of an “airport city”, a concept by which the airport becomes just one part of a wider self-sustaining location, with employment centres, housing, leisure facilities, and healthcare and educational facilities. 

The original design drawings were amazing. They are sure to be updated, but if the reality turns out to be half as good as those initial visions, then this is going to be something very, very special. 

DWC’s greatest claim to fame currently is probably the successful air bridge project during the soccer world cup, when a combination of Qatar Airways and FlyDubai ran a near 24-hour operation of shuttle flights between Doha and Dubai.

Today the airport offers flights to locations in Central Europe and Russia, operated by a mix of low-cost airlines and specialist charters. 

Alongside those passenger flights, there is also a range of cargo services, some of which have been “relocated” from DXB by the imposition of noise and environmental restrictions and some that are so ad-hoc in nature that they can only secure slots at DWC.

All of that is about to change. But first, the construction project.

Building an airport of such size is probably going to take 9½  years of the 10 years allocated. 

This will require a masterplan that will stretch the resources of any construction company

Make no mistake: this will require a masterplan that will stretch the resources of any construction company.

And of course, some of those resources are committed to other projects in the region, many of which are in Saudi Arabia. That will, for sure, make for some interesting day rates for consultants.

The movement from DXB to DWC is likely to be managed through a phased programme of airline and route migration spread over several years.

In other instances of airport moves, we have typically seen cargo services moving first, followed by those airlines and routes where connecting traffic is not so crucial to the sustainability of a service. 

In Turkey, the move to the new Istanbul Airport took over a week. 

Since capacity at DXB is running at around 98 percent of availability, there is no more room for new services unless something gives elsewhere.

Dubai Airports Authority is likely to offer incentives to persuade airlines to re-position. But, in some cases airlines may just be told they have no choice but to move to DWC if they wish to add new flights to Dubai.  

In the transitional years we should equally expect both Emirates and FlyDubai to move flights across to DWC, partly because of their own growth constraints at DXB but also to be seen symbolically to be supporting the wider ambitions of Dubai Inc.

Is the target of 260 million passengers achievable? Yes. With the planned aircraft orders of Emirates and FlyDubai, and assuming that around 60 percent of those aircraft are for expansion to either new markets or additional frequencies, then it is certainly possible.

A gradual but noticeable ramp-up of operations over several operating seasons is likely to occur towards the end of the next decade, even as construction continues.

But at some stage there will be the inevitable and final closure of the current DXB facility, which of course means a complex house move for everyone. Some will ask why Dubai has continued to invest in DXB.

The answer is that DXB is a flagship infrastructure project, central to the success of Dubai Inc. It has therefore had to offer the highest possible levels of service to customers.

This weekend’s announcement finally answers a question that had been hanging around for many years, and we have a timescale for delivery of what will be the world’s largest airport. 

For those with property near DWC, values are about to rise as much as those close to DXB will start to fall.

Staff currently working at DXB may face a longer commute, and for those airlines that operate to DXB, some choices will have to be made about when to jump to DWC, or be pushed.

But perhaps the hardest question to answer is: what will happen to Abu Dhabi’s Zayed International Airport, given that the world’s largest airport will be just 84 kilometres away? Is it going to be sustainable in the long term?

John Grant is partner at UK consultancy Midas Aviation

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