Dubai International Airport to close one of two runways for 45 days in 2019 – which airports might benefit?

13 March, 2018

Dubai Airports recently confirmed plans to close Dubai International Airport's (DXB) southern runway for a 45-day period in Apr/May-2019 in order to conduct a “comprehensive upgrade” designed to boost safety, service and capacity levels. The runway is nearing the end of its design life and requires complete resurfacing and replacement of the airfield ground lighting and supporting infrastructure. The closure will require airlines to reduce their operations at the airport accordingly between 16-Apr-2018 and 30-May-2018 due to the significant capacity reduction.

While business leaders in the UK emote about the failure of politicians formally to ratify a third runway for London Heathrow Airport, pointing to how it has to handle 78 million passengers on two runways (2017), it is often forgotten that DXB handled over 10 million more passengers in that year, again on just two runways (although that is puzzle is slightly easier to piece together on account of the number of widebodied aircraft movements).

A third runway is unlikely to be added there when Dubai Airports is trying to build up traffic at Dubai World Central (Al Maktoum) airport, aka DWC, which is located further away from downtown, at Jebel Ali, but which is earmarked eventually to be the primary airport for the emirate, handling 160 million ppa even if it has just one runway now and only around a million passengers.

As it happens, DXB’s growth stalled in Jan-2018, the airport recording -1.0% decline but it remains the case that the Gulf states are at the epicentre of global aviation growth overall.

CHART - Dubai International Airport's annual traffic has more than doubled over the past ten years, albeit the rate of growth has been shallower over the past two years - 7.2% in 2016 and 5.5% in 2017Source: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and Dubai International Airport reports

This is not the first time runways have been closed at DXB. In 2014 both were closed, separately, for phased refurbishment for a combined period of 80 days.

On that occasion, to safeguard service levels and optimise capacity, scheduled passenger flights were reduced and all freighter, charter and general aviation flights diverted to DWC. In all there was a 26% reduction in the number of aircraft movements at DXB during the maintenance period.

In fact, 12 scheduled commercial airlines applied for relocation slots at DWC during the DXB refurbishment . They did not include Emirates, which is reliant on DXB for its concentrated sixth freedom route operations.

To limit the impact on service, the upgrade work is scheduled to take place from when passenger traffic historically ebbs due to a seasonal lull. On this occasion DWC will be made available straight away as an alternative to absorb affected scheduled flights as well as charter, cargo and general aviation operations, but again, presumably Emirates will be staying put at DXB.

CHART - Emirates Airline dominates activities at Dubai International Airport and together with its sister carrier flydubai hold a 75% share of system seatsSource: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and OAG (data: w/c 12-Mar-2018)

However this situation is spun though, other airports (and airlines) in the region will be missing a golden opportunity if they fail to benefit from it. The most obvious candidate to do so is Doha’s Hamad International, which also has two full-length runways but which handles only half the traffic of DXB on them. Qatar Airways is expanding rapidly, especially in Southeast Asia, where it is doing so faster than any other airline, and selectively also in other regions.

According to the CAPA Global Airport Construction Database, the capacity at an airport which only opened as recently as four years ago, is being expanded from 50 million ppa to 65 million ppa in anticipation of the 2022 FIFA World Cup which Qatar is hosting.

A merger between Dubai’s Emirates and neighbouring Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi is occasionally mooted but as long as that does not happen, the two airlines remain rivals. Again, Abu Dhabi looks set potentially to benefit from the DXB runway closure. The international airport there, which handled around 24,000 passengers in 2017, again on two runways, actually looks set to “lose out” in the sense that its midfield terminal, which will increase the airport's capacity to approximately 45 million passengers per annum, is not set to open before the end of 2019.

The airport that is most likely to benefit however is not in the Gulf and it isn’t even open yet. Turkey’s New Istanbul Airport, which is now scheduled to be inaugurated in Oct-2018 (it should have been Feb-2018 but the exceptional construction schedule could not be sustained) will eventually have six independent runways, which means that the issues affecting DXB should theoretically never occur there. That is despite the fact that the annual capacity will ultimately be 200 million passengers, though the opening capacity will be a more modest 90 million, on three runways.

Interestingly, both DWC and the Istanbul New Airport are building their offer around huge new airport cities that are being constructed in each case. These and other matters will be debated at the CAPA-organised Global Airport Leaders Forum, which will take place on 07 May 2018, in Dubai, in conjunction with the Dubai Airport Show, the world’s largest annual Airport Exhibition.