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Emirates airlines are seen on the tarmac in a general view of Dubai International Airport Image Credit: Reuters

UAE will celebrate its 50th National Day this year. As the country heads towards this significant milestone, it is worthwhile to trace Dubai’s journey from a sleepy fishing village to the global aviation hub it has become today.

About 60 years ago, pearling and fishing supported Dubai’s economy and around 20,000 people called it home. Until 1958, Dubai had no airport and until 1962, the runway was just a compacted salt bed, with no asphalt cover.

Fast forward to the present and Dubai is a bustling metropolis today with towering skyscrapers and a population of more than 3.5 million people. Its airport was the number one hub for international passengers in 2019, with an annual traffic of 86.4 million passengers.

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Dubai Airport: From a modest beginning, it paved the way for taking on the world. Exactly 60 years ago, Dubai Airport was nothing more than a runway made of compacted sand. The year was 1959, and the city’s airport was just a single runway on a compacted salt flat. Image Credit: File

How did it all begin?

In 1959, Dubai had an 1,800-metre runway built upon orders of Dubai’s former ruler, Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum. An asphalt runway was added in 1963.

In 1970, a year before the UAE became a federation, Sheikh Rashid ordered the construction of a new terminal building consisting of a 110-metre three-storey building, which included an enclosed floor area of 13,400 square metres.

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Work began on Dubai International Airport in 1959 on a vast expanse of a wasteland about four kilometres from what was then the edge of the city of Dubai. Image Credit: Dubai Media Office

A new 28-metre control tower was also built. It was considered a grand infrastructure project for Dubai's stature — with only one runway, and having no airline of its at that time.

The second runway was completed in April 1984, some 21 years after the first asphalt runway was built.

Located 360 metres north of the existing runway (parallel to it), the new runaway was geared up with latest meteorological, airfield lighting and instrument landing systems (ILS) — thus giving the airport a Category II classification.

A year later, in 1985, Emirates Airline was launched as Dubai's main carrier with $10 million in capital, starting with two aircraft leased from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).

In 1985, Emirates Airline was launched as Dubai's main carrier with $10 million in capital. Image Credit: GN Archives

Further expansion

In 1998, Terminal 2 was built. In 2000, Dubai International saw the Dh2-billion expansion of Shaikh Rashid Terminal — known today as Terminal 1. It marked the first phase of Dubai's push to become a global aviation hub.

The new terminal more than doubled the airport’s capacity from 10 million to 23 million. In 2004, Dubai kicked off the construction of Terminal 3, as the next stage of development, at an estimated cost of around $4.5 billion.

Four years later, on October 14, 2008, the new Terminal 3 was opened, raising Dubai International Airport's passenger capacity to 60 million a year. By 2009, DXB was already cited as the world's fastest-growth airport among the top 50 major airports.

The airport also became the world's largest duty-free retailer then, reporting revenues of more than $1 billion.

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Dubai Airport Terminal 3 Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

In 2010, the Dubai International Airport saw passenger traffic reaching an historic 47.2 million, up 15.3 per cent over 40.9 million in 2009. It handled over 3.87 million aircraft that year, a 12.4 per cent growth from the year before.

DXB marches forward

In May 2011, the construction of the new Concourse D for all airlines currently operating from Concourse C. In September 2012, DXB changed the names of concourses for easier passenger navigation. Concourse 1, in which over 100 international airlines operate, became Concouse C.

The Terminal C complex also includes Concourse A, a purpose-built facility for A380, which opened in January 2013, further increasing the airport's capacity to 75 million passengers per year.

A year later, in 2014, Dubai had overtaken Heathrow airport as the world's busiest international hub, with 70.48 million passengers and 8,000 weekly international flights.

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DXB saw passenger numbers of 5.75 million in the first three months of 2021, a sharp drop of 67.8 per cent from the first quarter of 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Today, even in the midst of this pandemic, Dubai is doing better than most. DXB saw passenger numbers of 5.75 million in the first three months of 2021, a sharp drop of 67.8 per cent from the first quarter of 2020, which was just before the COVID-19 breakout hit the world and the airline industry.

"Despite the ongoing challenges to air travel as the world continues to battle against the impact of the global pandemic, as an important hub, DXB will continue to play its role of enabling mobility and connectivity and contribute to the much needed social and economic recovery globally," said Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports.

Story of Emirates

In 1984, Sir Maurice Flanagan, then managing director of dnata, was asked to look into starting an airline. Image Credit: GN Archives

Any story about Dubai is incomplete without a mention of Emirates airline – one of the region’s largest airlines.

In 1984, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, then UAE Minister of Defence asked Sir Maurice Flanagan, then managing director of dnata, to look into starting an airline. By December that year, a comprehensive business plan was ready, and the name “Emirates” was chosen for the new airline.

A year later, Flanagan was tasked with the ambitious mission to launch an airline in 5 months with $10 million seed funding. There would be no subsidies or aero political protection under Dubai’s open skies policy.

On October 25, 1985, Emirates operated its first flights from Dubai to Karachi and Mumbai, using a Boeing 737 and an Airbus 300 B4 wet-leased from Pakistan International Airlines.

In its first five years of operations, Emirates grew its network to 14 destinations – these included Mumbai, Delhi, Karachi, Amman, Colombo, Cairo, Dhaka, Male, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Damascus, Jeddah, and Kuwait. The 1990s saw air travel becoming more popular than ever before. Fares dropped as the competition and the number of customers increased.

That same year, Dubai International airport completed a major refurbishment, and Emirates moved into a new $2 million departure terminal.

Recession years

Emirates made its first acquisition in the form of a 43 per cent stake in Air Lanka (later renamed SriLankan). Image Credit: WAM

The US recession in 1990–1991 combined with the Gulf War wiped out air travel demand and inflicted losses of $10 billion on the industry. While this hit Gulf airlines particularly hard, Emirates bounced back swiftly and even placed an order for seven Boeing 777s with 7 options.

The carrier’s financial strength became even clearer when it made its first acquisition in the form of a 43 per cent stake in Air Lanka (later renamed SriLankan).

Along with Emirates grew Dubai’s position as a global hub, which saw passenger arrivals hit the 11 million mark in 1999. In that same year, Emirates carried 4.7 million passengers on its fleet of 32 aircraft.

Global brand

Real Madrid players Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale with Emirates cabin crew on-board the Emirates A380 First Class cabin. Image Credit: Dubai media office Twitter

It was only in the 2000s that Emirates became the global brand that it is today. Indeed, turn on any television set around the world and there is a presence of Emirates, either in advertising, on referees at the Rugby World Cup, on Formula One, or on the shirts of football players — a presence that shows the marketing prowess and reach of the airline.

Even operationally, the airline was not doing that badly. Emirates becomes the first airline to sign up for the Airbus A380, ordering seven with options for five more at the Farnborough Air Show. The world’s largest commercial aircraft has been a flagship of the Emirates fleet over the last two decades.

If that wasn’t enough, later in 2005, Emirates made history with an order for 42 Boeing 777s in a deal worth $9.7 billion. This was the largest-ever Boeing 777 order at the time.

In 2008, the Emirates Terminal 3 commenced, with 500,000 passengers departing from the facility within its first month of operation. The airline added 46 routes from 2000 to 2010.

Vaccine transporter

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A Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine shipment is offloaded from an Emirates Airlines Boing 777 that arrived from Brussels to Dubai International Airport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, early Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to clobber the aviation industry, Emirates Airlines, the Middle East’s biggest airline is seeking to play a vital role in the global vaccine delivery effort. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili) Image Credit: AP

Emirates, along with its global peers, was hit hard due to the pandemic. The company reported a loss of Dh14.1 billion for the first six months of its 2020-21 financial year (from April).

Despite the hardships, the airline has again become pivotal to Dubai’s goal of becoming a global vaccine hub.

In October last year, Emirates SkyCargo – the airline’s freight division - announced that it was setting up the world’s largest certified airside distribution hub dedicated for the storage and distribution of these vaccines.

Earlier this year, Emirates SkyCargo joined hands with three other Dubai-based entities- DP World, International Humanitarian City and Dubai Airports - to form a COVID-19 vaccine alliance for rapid transport of COVID-19 vaccines to the developing world through Dubai.

Aiding India

Most recently, Emirates set up a humanitarian air bridge between Dubai and India to transport urgent medical and relief items, to support India in its fight to control the serious COVID-19 situation in the country.

The airline is offering cargo capacity free of charge on an “as available” basis on all of its flights to nine cities in India, to help international NGOs deliver relief supplies rapidly to where it is needed.

“We stand with the Indian people and will do all we can to help India get back on its feet. Emirates has a lot of experience in humanitarian relief efforts, and with 95 weekly flights to 9 destinations in India, we will be offering regular and reliable widebody capacity for relief materials,” said Sheikh Al Maktoum, Emirates’ Chairman and Chief Executive, in a statement.