Dubai Airport's fast return to full operational mode from the COVID-19 disruption in July 2020 has paid off handsome dividends since. Image Credit: Dubai Airports

Dubai: Starting early on the full re-opening of flights has helped UAE’s airlines and airports avoid the clogging being witnessed in the UK and US, with authorities there struggling to get close to normalcy.

Airports in the UK and US are seeing long check-in queues and widespread flight cancellations. At the heart of the problem are severe staff shortages, which is an after-effect from the massive layoffs during the pandemic.

Thousands of miles to the east, the Dubai Airport is hitting its stride, with an estimated 2 million passengers traversing in the peak travel period between December and January. It has seen few delays and even fewer cancellations and this was because the regional aviation hub was already back in business as early as July 2020.

“The continuous re-employment of staff in a phased approach over the past 12 months has reduced the risk of dealing with large staff shortage at the airport,” said Linus Bauer, Managing Director at Bauer Aviation Advisory. “Since the reopening, it has been removing the rust with the help of continuous improvement initiatives during busy periods like Christmas and Expo 2020.”

Back to hiring

Even the UAE airlines were at it early. Emirates and Etihad Airways had announced plans to recruit thousands of employees in the second-half of 2021 even as large parts of Europe and Asia were under strict lockdown regimes.

“The root cause in the case of UK seems to be delays in various aviation stakeholders being able to ramp back to pre-pandemic levels,” Sean Mendis, an aviation analyst, said.

The trend in the Middle East has been towards earlier re-openings, so they had already largely ramped up during 2021.

- Sean Mendis, aviation analyst

Mendis said that UK and US airports and airlines may have grossly underestimated the staffing requirements for the busy travel period. “They didn't anticipate the inability of the resources they had available to cope.”

An experienced and available workforce is no longer there for the industry to tap into. “A lot of people who had been furloughed and were expected to return to their roles have instead left the industry permanently, said Mendis. “That means a simple return to work has turned into a replacement situation (and) that obviously has longer lead times.”

Emirates’ return to full capacity
• In October 2021, Emirates announces a plan to recruit more than 6,000 staff over the next six months.

• In December 2021, the Dubai airline says it is looking to recruit more than 500 IT professionals.

• Emirates ramps up to pre-pandemic flight frequencies to India from April 1, 2022.

• DXB reopens Terminal 1 and Concourse D on June 24 to meet rising traffic.

• Following the opening of the final phase of Concourse A, DXB becomes 100 per cent operational.

• Dubai International retains the title of the busiest airport for 2021.

Too soon?

Some analysts blame UK’s hasty removal of travel restrictions for the current crisis. The country put a stop to all testing and quarantine measures on March 18 to save its hard-hit aviation and tourism sectors.

“They unilaterally went ahead without consulting with the airlines or airport operators resulting in a scramble for the necessary airport passes to be issued,” said John Grant, Partner at Midas Aviation. “With this process taking longer than normal - because the issuing authorities don't have the resources in place - the airlines and airports have not been able to get people online and working.”

Also, many staff members have been calling in sick as UK’s COVID-19 infection numbers have soared, setting record highs. “No one could have predicted such a heavy outbreak of Covid and the delays in security clearances haven't helped,” Grant said.

The aviation expert does not think a similar situation could play out in UAE.

A large portion of connecting passengers have already pre-cleared some travel requirements – they can pass through the airport more easily and obviously that helps as well.

- John Grant, Partner at Midas Aviation

A move to digital

The smooth flow of passengers in DXB is helped by the adoption of technologies such as smart gates and contactless kiosks. Most recently, Emirates introduced 25 mobile check-in ports at DXB Terminal 3. These portable units will be deployed throughout the check-in halls at the terminal.

“Smoother contactless journey has been contributing to Dubai's operational resilience as a global hub,” said Bauer.

DXB's comeback
• DXB reopens Terminal 1 and Concourse D on June 24 to meet rising traffic demand.

• In December 2021, following the opening of the final phase of Concourse A, DXB becomes 100 per cent operational.

• In April 2022, Dubai International retains title of busiest airport for 2021.