Airports are under development everywhere. I travelled through London Heathrow this past week. Hurrah – Terminal 2 has been knocked down and is being rebuilt (costing £1bn, opening in 2014). Terminal 1 will be next. Shed no tears, it’s long overdue (as per my previous rant). T3 was crowded, noisy and unpleasant and, on the way back, it took over 50 minutes for my bags to appear! LHR remains the world’s busiest airport – with over 66m people passing though last year – but for how much longer, I wondered, particularly now that its third runway has been kicked into the long grass.
As I write I’m in Singapore, flying home from Changi airport; consistently voted as one of the best airports in the world. It truly is – due to a heady mix involving acres of space, unanticipated zones of peace and quiet plus wonderful levels of efficiency and … the Butterfly House! During 2010, Changi handled 42 million passengers and won 25 ‘Best Airport’ awards.
There’s a revolution going on in the world of the airport. The ongoing growth of the Gulf and Asian airlines is being matched by an explosion in new airport infrastructure. Europe is losing out. Its legacy airport hub system is aging and under extreme pressure as the stop-over traffic moves elsewhere. Airline business and passenger traffic is rapidly moving east. Heathrow, Frankfurt and Schiphol are losing out to the likes of Dubai and Changi, particularly when it comes to flying to Australia. Passengers on the ‘Kangaroo route’ are deliberately choosing to fly with the Gulf and Asian airlines, boycotting European carriers on grounds of lower cost, better service and increased flexibility. British Airways and the European carriers are seeing Emirates, Qatar and Singapore Airlines dilute their traditional market via competitive pricing, newer planes and increased connections.
The impact of the A380 on the travel market has been huge. This is the plane of choice now for many, myself included, despite the recent shock of the Qantas / Rolls Royce engine explosion (since resolved). Emirates alone ordered another 32 of the superjumbos last year to add to the 58 aircraft already arriving. Singapore Airlines currently operates 11 of these planes (with 8 more on order) – but BA has deferred its order for 12 planes and will not take delivery until between 2012 and 2016.
The Gulf States are either building from new or upgrading their airport facilities at a frenetic pace. Their goal is to provide world-class transit hubs from which travellers, especially those from the emerging markets of India and China, can reach the rest of the world, bypassing the need to route via the older European gateways. For these countries, Europe is no longer the hub for reaching the world but simply a destination. Transiting via Dubai is like watching the entire world on the move, with people passing through en route to seemingly every country in the world.
Dubai alone welcomes 120 different airlines from around the world and has just opened the new Al Maktoum airport with its five runways. Qatar is overhauling its Doha airport, completely replacing the current facility. This will open in 2012 thereby doubling its capacity. At 22 sq. km. it will be one of the largest airports in the world, half of it built from land reclaimed from the sea. Oman will complete a brand new terminal building later this year.
The Economist reported recently that ‘there will soon be more capacity at Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha than at Heathrow, Paris and Frankfurt combined’; the revolution in air travel is indeed gathering pace.
The one cloud on the horizon may be the gathering political turbulence across the Middle East, potentially threatening its stability. Will air travellers continue to want to transit via an increasingly volatile region?