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What other airports can learn from Dubai
27/Jan/2015
Dubai International Airport, home hub to both Emirates and flydubai, has according to data seen overtaken London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) as the world’s largest international airport. Total passenger numbers came close to 70.5 million passengers, up by over 6 percent from 2013. Notably, and in spite of both runways at DXB being resealed in mid-2014, which curtailed air traffic considerably – Emirates’ reduced their capacity by nearly 25 percent during the 80 days – the growth was still enough to unseat LHR which has led the pack for decades.

Dubai Airports officials confirmed that the new Concourse D, which is due to open later this year, will boost capacity to beyond 90 million passengers, a timely expansion as the airport expects to handle a new record number of passengers this year.

Aviation has become one of the UAE’s main economic pillars, more so in Dubai, where the opening last year of the new Dubai World Central, in short DWC and also known as Al-Maktoum International Airport, located in Jebel Ali, has provided for further growth. DWC, when complete, will operate with 6 runways and will be able to handle a staggering 150 million passengers a year, which combined with DXB will make Dubai the undisputed number one in global aviation for passengers handled.

The unrelenting growth of the two airlines based in Dubai - Emirates and flydubai - was largely facilitated and aided by airport infrastructure growing ahead of the curve, a sharp reminder for others to take stock where the UAE succeeded and they failed.

Heathrow, with a slot uptake of over 98 percent, remains a two-runway airport and efforts to build a third, leave alone fourth runway – seen by many as the only way to stay in the top tier of international airports – has born no fruits. Suggestions to build a 4-runway airport at the Thames estuary has also met with opposition in both the current UK government, the opposition, and through environmental groups, basically condemning Heathrow, in global terms, to eventually slide back further and further when reaching slot saturation and being unable to grow traffic beyond airlines substituting existing wide-bodied aircraft with the giant Airbus A380.

“The Brits yielded their leadership position to Dubai without a fight. They saw Dubai moving in on them for the past few years, and now it has happened. They did not invest ahead of traffic growth in new facilities other than Terminal 5, but with the present number of runways, is the ceiling in sight now? Add to that the lukewarm attitude by British Airways for the East African marketplace, and you have already two reasons why Dubai has now topped the charts. They dropped Dar and don’t even fly daily to Entebbe, where they were overtaken even by latecomers like KLM. Emirates’ now flies twice a day to Dar, and flydubai once a day, and BA tried to hoodwink us that there was not enough traffic or not enough yield? Number three was the prohibitive transit visa policy by the Brits which also helped to divert traffic away from LHR. And the funniest is that they are now all blaming the Gulf airlines for their woes,” said a regular aviation commentator from Nairobi before turning his attention to our region’s aviation infrastructure.

“When I look at what has happened in the Gulf, a brand new airport in Doha, a brand new second mega airport in Dubai, where they still expand the present airport and the new Central Terminal in Abu Dhabi, they have all planned a decade or more ahead to be ready for their growing fleets of aircraft. Here in East Africa, we are lagging a decade behind. Look at Dar es Salaam which is bursting at the seams. Look at Entebbe which has completely missed the train. Look at JKIA [Jomo Kenyatta International Airport] where the second runway should be in operation by now. Instead, we have capacity caps from April for a year, because our single runway is finally, and long overdue, resealed. The only plus side in East Africa I see in Kigali, where they have expanded their present airport in the nick of time. This will support their own airline to handle more passengers, and from what I gather they are soon starting construction of their new airport in Bugesera. But by and large, … our aviation planners [have] slept on the job which led to terrible congestion in the old terminals of JKIA before the new terminal came online last year. Project Greenfield must be pushed through on the fast track, because the way Kenya Airways proposes to grown over the next 7 or 8 years, they just need more space when their fleet doubles. Any delay will be very costly for us. After all, Nairobi wants to stay East Africa’s top airport, but to accomplish that, a lot more must be done. When I compare what the Gulf countries have done, we should by now look beyond Greenfield. We need to plan for a third runway even, and secure the land for it so that expansion beyond 2013 can be secured.”

Dubai in December 2014 handled nearly 6.5 million passengers, a figure almost at par with what Nairobi handles in an entire year. The Chairman of Dubai Airports, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, was yesterday quoted to have said: “The shared goal is to make Dubai a global center of aviation, and we are nearing that goal thanks to an open skies policy; a friendly business environment; Dubai’s growing attractiveness as a center for trade, commerce, and tourism; growing network connectivity due to the rapid expansion of Emirates and flydubai; and timely investment in aviation infrastructure.”

Now if only someone in our region would take up this challenge and state their intent to make Nairobi the African center for aviation, which, while admittedly very ambitious, could spur added infrastructure developments in a sector which, as has been seen in the Gulf, has the capacity to become a major employer and earner of fore.
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