STOCK Al Maktoum International Airport NEW
Gates for 400 aircraft, five runways and a capacity to handle 260 million passengers annually. That's what Dubai's new Al Maktoum International will be. Image Credit: WAM

The aviation landscape is changing fast, and Al Maktoum International will help Dubai keep pace with the demands wrought by technological advancements. The airport has been designed with an eye on the future: a future where narrow-bodied aircraft will play a pivotal role in air travel. Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, underscored that at the Arabian Travel Market on Tuesday.

Parking for up to 400 aircraft, 5 runways and the capacity to handle 260 million passengers annually: that’s Al Maktoum International. The facilities at the new airport are enhanced to cope with the changing industry, Griffiths said during a talk on “Navigating the future of air travel, moderated by Mark Frary, co-founder of Travel Perspective.

Like any other technology, aviation technology has been changing rapidly. Any futureproof solution should factor in the pace at which technology is developing. That’s the nub of Griffith’s argument.

To illustrate the point, he said, “If you extrapolate the growth from 17 years ago with 30 million [passengers annually], we’re now 90 million. And if you go forward another 15 to 20 years, we will probably be at 260 million. This airport [Al Maktoum International] has been designed for it. Aircraft technology has changed so much, and it’s about to change if you look at the average size of aircraft at the moment.”

The Airbus A380 superjumbo was once the pride of the fleet. It has since slipped from the pedestal, unseated by the efficient, narrow-bodied aircraft which played a major role in the post-pandemic recovery of the aviation industry.

“We’re very fortunate that the A380 has been a big advantage for us at DXB because it enabled us to move passengers from an average of about 170 right up to 235. So, having that efficiency has helped us grow. [But] the way technology is moving, the future is about smaller, more efficient aircraft,” the Dubai Airports CEO said.

Griffiths elaborated this: “14,000 aircraft are currently on order between Boeing and Airbus. At the moment, only 15 sets of them are large, wide-body twin-aisle aircraft. So the majority of the growth is going to be single-aisle, smaller airplanes because the engine and airframe technology has moved on so much that the economics of those aircraft are much better than the economics of their larger cousins.”

He said this would lead to a sea change in the aviation industry, as the range capability of those smaller aircraft is going to change the whole landscape. “Regional airports that haven’t sustained long-haul service will now be connected directly to major hubs like Dubai. So you’ll see a plethora of destinations, and we’ll probably get to over 300 cities that are served directly,” the Dubai Airports official added.

Pointing to the swift recovery in the post-Covid scenario, Griffiths said, “Most of the growth we’ve seen since the pandemic has been due to the narrow-bodied aircraft. Flydubai and a lot of the foreign airlines that come into Dubai have used smaller, more efficient and more capable ­­­— from a range perspective — aircraft. So, it’s been necessary to create an airport with the number of gates necessary to accommodate a much lower average capacity. So that’s the rationale behind [the 400 gates]. It’s a very solid mathematical rationale. That’s why we need so many gates and so many runways,” he explained.

Turning to sustainability, Griffith admitted it’s the number one issue facing the industry, and there’s no easy solution. “We need a breakthrough in propulsion technology to stop depending on fossil fuels; that will undoubtedly come. The difficulty: The production of biofuels is hugely challenging. It’s going to be difficult to see how sustainable aviation fuel would be produced in sufficient quantity.”

But the Dubai Airports CEO is optimistic. “I do think that the triumvirate of industry, government and consumer has to be joined up to solve a sustainability question,” he said, adding that governments have to set targets for the investment necessary to make alternative fuels a reality.

“Industry has to be proactively incentivised, and ultimately, the consumer will have to bear the cost of a more sustainable supply chain for the aviation and travel industry. So I think there are solutions there. But it clearly is a challenge,” Griffiths said.