Dubai has never been short of ambition; constructing the world's tallest skyscraper and massive artificial islands along the coastline has certainly raised the profile of the emirate in the past few decades. These mega-projects have portrayed Dubai as a powerful and ambitious state, but this form of civic boosterism is nothing new. During the British industrial revolution, municipal buildings as humble as pumping stations were given beautifully ornate facades and detailing unseen since in most of the nation's municipal architecture. Dubai's modern-day equivalents are among the most ambitious in the world.
Infrastructure projects are no different; Dubai Metro, the Arabian Peninsula's first such system, is set to cost close to $4bn and should be fully operational by the end of 2012. Dubai International Airport is also undertaking a large-scale expansion plan to meet the expected rise in passenger numbers.
However, this is more than just a showpiece for Dubai - it is also vital for economic growth. The airport handled 40.9 million passengers in 2009, making it the 15th busiest airport in the world and the fourth by international passengers. This is expected to rise to 150 million passengers per year by 2030, far outstripping the airport's current capacity.
The first stage of the expansion was completed in 2008 with the opening of the $4.5bn Terminal 3 for use by flag carrier Emirates Airline. James Robinson, head of strategic planning for Dubai Airports, is well aware that expansion needs to continue beyond this to cope with the expected increase in passengers, and to avoid stifling growth in the country.
"Aviation generates 25% of the local GDP and the emirate can ill afford to constrain growth. Expansion now avoids congestion in the future and we don't want to play catch-up on demand; we would rather be ready for it," explains Robinson.
The next stage of the expansion in the airport master plan is the building of Concourse 3, which will accommodate an additional 20 aircraft stands, 18 of which will be large enough to handle the Airbus A380. "Concourse 3, which will be ready in 2012, will take Dubai International's total capacity to 75 million passengers per year from the current 60 million. We can expand that to 90 million through optimising infrastructure use, but that is the maximum."
As passenger numbers will have already outstripped this capacity within a decade, there is a clear need for additional capacity elsewhere in the emirate, hence the construction of a second international airport: Al Maktoum International - 40km from the site of the current Dubai International. The largest component of the Dubai World Central development, Al Maktoum, will feature five runways, 100,000 parking spaces and capacity for up to 160 million passengers per year, all at a cost of $82bn. This price tag, making it the largest single project in the world, is justifiable in Robinson's eyes.
"Given our long-term demand forecasts for 98 million passengers by 2020 and 150 million passengers by 2030, there is clearly a need for more capacity, which is the rationale behind the building of the Dubai World Central Al Maktoum International."
The first phase of construction was completed in June this year, with the commencement of cargo operations and the completion of a passenger terminal capable of handling 5 million passengers per annum. But the construction will not stop there. "When the airport is completed in the 2020s, it will accommodate up to 160 million passengers per annum and a final capacity of 12 million tons per annum."
It is hoped the combined capacity of both airports will provide Dubai with world-beating facilities to support economic growth. "As capacity and traffic expand over the next 20 years, Dubai World Central-Al Maktoum International will evolve into the world's largest airport and a leading multimodal logistics hub," Robinson explains.
Capacity expansion alone will not bring people in; James is aware that a world class passenger experience is also critical in achieving this goal. Increased capacity will reduce delays and disruptions, which will of course improve this experience, but improving retail options for travellers is also a key part of their strategy.
"Retail plays a crucial role in the overall passenger experience, and their level of satisfaction and loyalty," explains Robinson. Giving customers unrivalled choice in shopping options will make the airports destinations in their own right. There is also the added benefit of increasing revenues for the airports. "It's an important revenue generator for us. Our goal is to increase non-aeronautical revenues to keep our rates and charges for airlines extremely competitive. To achieve both we are constantly working with retailers and partners to optimise space at the airport, improve our passenger offerings and boost revenue," he adds.
On top of these planned improvements, associated infrastructure will play an integral role in making the journey of air travellers an easy one. Fast and reliable transport connections to and from the airport from the rest of Dubai will be needed, in addition to the planned improvements in capacity and retail. "We work closely with the Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) and other stakeholders involved in our airport infrastructure," notes Robinson. "Al Maktoum International and Dubai International will be linked by a proposed high-speed rail link. There are also plans to connect the airport to Dubai Metro and the highway network."
It is hoped that this holistic approach to the development of air travel in Dubai, covering all aspects of a passenger's journey from door-to-door, will keep travellers coming back to Dubai, in turn generating economic growth for the emirate.