For a hub as massive as the Dubai International Airport — where more than 180,000 passengers pass through a single day, and where more than 90,000 people work to keep it running every single day of year — there’s bound to be some drama. And boy, is there plenty.
From a transit passenger with a luggage full of live snakes, to one with heroine painstakingly stitched into the lining of a suitcase, and the occasional dreaded emergency landing, National Geographic’s Ultimate Airport Dubai is back for its second season with an all-access pass to one of the world’s busiest airports.
The 10-part series, which premieres on December 11, is a follow-up to the Season 1 debut in September last year.
Ed Sayer, the vice-president of commissioning at National Geographic Channels International, says returning for Season 2 was an obvious option.
“Season 1 performed so well for the channel globally that it was a no brainer to commission season 2,” he says. “Every day there are new and extraordinary events that happen in airports. Whether it was catching animal smugglers trying to import live snakes in their luggage or having to load some of the world’s most expensive cars into the tight confines of a plane’s cargo hold, we, and the staff, were never short of new stories to tell.”
While unwilling to share specific numbers, National Geographic Abu Dhabi’s general manager Sanjay Raina tells tabloid! Ultimate Airport Dubai was “overall rated above the channel’s average” last year.
The first season, also split into 10 episodes, gave viewers an unfettered look into how the airport runs, the construction and phased opening of Concourse A, the A380 facility at Terminal 3, last year, and gave us a look into the stories of some of the 57 million passengers that transit at the airport and the people who take care of them while they are there.
Season 2 will return with some regular characters featured in the first series as they deal with new and different situations, Sayer says. There’s also a focus on the closure of the runways for repair, and the resulting spillover as airlines temporarily shifted operations to Al Maktoum International at DWC and Sharjah International in May this year.
Capacity at Dubai International was cut by 26 per cent for 80 days from May 1 due to consecutive runway closure upgrades.
“For Season 2 it was more about honing our production processes and identifying the pinch points in the airport to make sure that we were always there when the action happened,” Sayer says.
National Geographic crews were given access-all-areas passes during the course of the filming as they shadowed everyone from air tariff controllers to custom officials and cabin crew.
“I think the two biggest challenges were the intense heat and the vast size of the airport. Getting a crew from one place to another to cover an unfolding story requires great communication and fast transport,” Sayer adds.
Despite its single focus of filming inside one airport, the series is in no way a promotional project, he says.
“We never make promotional shows. When you film an organisation, it is up to them to make sure that they come across well,” he says. “We just document what happens and show the ups and the downs. Our job as film makers is to find the unique stories that we will know will work for our viewers. The airport and other stakeholders have no editorial control so what you see in the show is what actually happens, for good or for bad.”
Series regulars, such as Emirates airport services manager Mel Sabharwal, have become mini celebrities.
“I’ve heard that people get excited to see Mel at work. She’s front line with the passengers and so is one of the personalities that travellers are most likely to see. I guess most people won’t want to see any of our customs guys when they enter the country!” Sayer says.
Sayer’s personal highlights of the series are the A380 emergency landing in the first episode, and the $135,000 worth of cocaine found stitched into the lining of a shirt in Episode 8.
“I don’t think there is another airport series in the world that delivers that kind of access,” he says. “I think viewers will be continually surprised by the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to make passengers’ flights seamlessly happen. It is a huge machine that operates 24 hours a day, which positions Dubai right up there as one of the best airports in the world.”
SOME HIGHLIGHTS TO WATCH OUT FOR:
Staff at the airport’s exclusive VIP Service prepare for the arrival of footballing legend Pele in Episode 2. And in Episode 6, recording artist Cat Stevens is at risk of missing a crucial flight to New York to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, all because of a computer problem at the departure gate.
In Episode 1, a plane requests an emergency landing during the night-time rush as Air Traffic Controllers scramble emergency services. In the next episode, firefighters rush to the aid of a 777 full of passengers that touches down with smoking landing gear, and a man loses his son in the world’s biggest airport terminal just minutes before their plane is due to depart. A pigeon delays an Emirates flight at Manchester, and dozens of passengers may not make their tight connections in Dubai in Episode 4. Then, a serious fault with a windshield leads to the grounding of a 777, and Dubai International Airport begins work on its billion dollar, 80 day runway rehabilitation project.
The unusual travellers
There’s a snakes-on-a-plane situation when a transit passenger is caught with a suitcase full of live snakes in the first episode. Then, in the Episode 2, two passengers arrive in Dubai with bags stuffed full of the most expensive wood in the world, as officers try to determine if they’ve come in legally.
See how criminals try to smuggle contraband goods into the country. One passenger is caught with 14kg of heroin stitched into the lining of his suitcase in Episode 1. Then in Episode 4, Customs Officers find five huge packages hidden in the bottom of a passenger’s luggage. The powder inside could test positive for heroin, and could possible be the biggest drugs haul at the airport in 10 years. In the same episode, officers find half a million dollars’ worth of crystal meth in the luggage of a passenger from Ghana. In Episode 8, officers stop a man who has a suitcase full of white shirts — and discover a huge $135,000 worth of cocaine hidden in the lining of the shirts.