The decision by Emirates Airlines to postpone moving its operations to the new Al Maktoum International Airport near Jebel Ali risks letting regional rivals steal a slice of Dubai’s hard-won and lucrative transit business on routes into Asia. According to Tim Clark, the president of Emirates, a “rethink” convinced the airline it was better to stay where it was for another decade. The moving timeframe has been put off from 2018 to 2020 to between 2022 and 2030.
“With a certain amount of investment,” said Clark, “you can get a lot more out of Dubai airport.” It would have been reasonable to add that it is much cheaper to stay put these days than it is to shift house. That “certain amount of investment” will boost passenger handling facilities at Dubai International Airport to 90 million passengers a year. That is still a long way from the staggering Al Maktoum target of an annual 160 million — or the equivalent of a little more than half the entire population of the United States.
Dubai is also an equally long way ahead of the airports at Istanbul and Doha, both of which would like to make further inroads into the growing Asia-bound traffic. Ataturk International Airport, in Istanbul, is the largest airport between Frankfurt and Dubai, and can handle 30 million people. A third airport in Istanbul would cost a minimum of $8 billion to $10 billion and the Turks are as ill-inclined these days as Dubai to splash money around unnecessarily. Istanbul has a second airport, Sabiha Gökçen but without a rapid transit access it is much too far away from the main body of the city to entertain thoughts of a grandiose future. The alternative and cheaper ideas include demolishing some high-rise apartment blocks to allow the addition of a parallel new runway at Ataturk, and a mega upgrade of the air traffic control system to allow planes to land with a gap smaller than the current minimum five miles. This could double the airport’s capacity. Hopefully the speed with which arriving passengers are processed through passport control would also be included in the plans. Qatar, too, is getting a new airport, which will be able to handle 50 million people when it is finished in 2015.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Middle East carriers are expected to carry just more than 15 percent more passengers in 2010, although few are managing to translate that into profits. Etihad Airways expects to break even next year, Qatar’s national carrier is too busy adding aircraft to be overly concerned about the bottom line and loss-making enterprises in Dubai is too painful a topic to broach.
Even so, the expansion continues. Qatar Airways will soon launch services to Brazil and Argentina, Etihad will increase its links with Australia and Emirates is stepping up the number of flights to London. That leaves Turkish Airways (THY) in an enviable location. The number of passengers carried rose 25 percent in the first two months of this year and its fleet will be increased by 94 aircraft over the next four years; some 1,600 new air and cabin crew will be hired this year. Ten airlines, including the Polish national carrier LOT and three from the Balkans, are seeking suitable terms to be taken over by THY. It is even increasing the number of football teams with whom it has travel deals. THY signed a contract with English super-club Manchester United to ferry the team for three-and-a-half years and has a similar agreement with FC Barcelona.
In total, THY hopes to carry 31 million passengers in 2010, or more than the entire capacity of Ataturk Airport. This mathematical conundrum is easily solved by including the rest of the country’s airports. Its routes are increasing to both west and east, encouraged by the increasing numbers of countries and cities, such as Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, which no longer require pre-acquired visas from Turkish citizens. All this means more planes, passengers, routes, staff and even profits for THY — in 2009 it made just over $220 million.
Perhaps Emirates thinks it is so far ahead of Turkey and Qatar, the 10-year delay on moving its base holds no hazards. That’s what the hare thought when it left the tortoise looking at the bottom of its paws.
Peter Grimsditch is Executive’s Istanbul correspondent