Terminal Attraction

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It’s hard to keep pace with Dubai’s growth, but its airport is rising to the challenge. Methil Renuka reports. 

Dubai did not have an airport when I first arrived,” recalls Indian businessman Ram Buxani. “I had to come by ship from Mumbai.” Buxani, executive vice-chairman of Cosmos, a Dubai-based consumer electronics major, is celebrating his 50th year in Dubai, the Middle East’s commerce hub, and remembers when the emirate opened its airport in 1960.

“It was like going to a picnic. We would drive to the airport just to see the sole Gulf Aviation aircraft take off and land in the desert,” he says. “Today, when I fly out of Dubai International, I think of how far it has come and how quickly – it’s almost as if Dubai skipped a few decades and sped right into the 21st century.” That Dubai has taken rapid strides is an understatement. With billions of dollars worth of investments, a robust economy and a growing expatriate population, not to mention projected figures of 15 million tourists by 2015, the greatest onus is on its airport.

Dubai International, which has just experienced its busiest summer yet, hosts 123 airlines which fly to 210 destinations from its existing Terminals 1 and 2, has enjoyed an average growth of 15 per cent annually since 2002, and accounts for over 27 per cent of all passenger and aircraft movement in the Middle East and Africa. The airport is expecting to sign off 2008 with 40 million passengers. The high volume, needless to say, has also strained airport infrastructure. It is hoped that the space constraints will somewhat ease with the opening of Dubai International isTerminal 3 and its curved, cigar-shaped associated airside facility Concourse 2.

Jose Thachil, marketing manager of Singapore Airlines in the Gulf, says: “The facilities at Dubai International are really commendable but it can get pretty crowded at peak times. Hopefully, the new terminal will free up T1.” Andrew Fyfe, regional manager of Virgin Atlantic, which has been serving Dubai since March 2006, agrees: “I am sure we will see a vast improvement in T1. We have also applied for space for our own lounge there and hope it will become available for us to consider building either a Virgin Clubhouse or Clubroom. ” T1 will also continue to upgrade with services such as the express check-in. The new dedicated home of Dubai-based Emirates Airline, T3 is another big string to Dubai’s tourism bow. At the time of writing, the media had not yet been invited to tour T3 and the finer details were still under wraps. T3 had been undergoing operational readiness trials for three months to test systems and processes with the help of public volunteers (the last major passenger trial was on 27 September).

Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, president of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, chairman of Dubai Airports, and chairman and chief executive of Emirates, said: “With any new facility, and especially one as mammoth as T3, some teething problems can occur, but we have robust back-up plans in place. The continuing trials and the phased opening has gone a long way in minimising unforeseen disruptions.” With five dedicated A380 gates, T3 is the perfect launch pad for Emirates’ expanding fleet of superjumbos. The airline, which ran its inaugural A380 service to New York from Dubai in August (T1 has two A380 gates), started an A380 service to London Heathrow in December. Next up in the airport’s expansion plan is Concourse 3, a dedicated A380 facility, to open in 2009. Dubai International will then have 25 gates for the twin-deck superjumbo, increasing its capacity to 75 million passengers a year.

That apart, the US$10 billion Al Maktoum International airport, under construction at Dubai World Central will be able to accommodate 120 million passengers when completed in 2015. While all this is good news for the Dubai-bound traveller, it’s also an indicator of the city’s unstoppable growth. Dubai International has managed to consistently maintain its reputation as the region’s biggest transit centre – thanks to its location at the centre of the emerging economies of the East and the developed markets of the West – and with the mega-airport projects is on course to fulfil its ambition of becoming the world’s largest aviation hub. T3 is merely a step in that direction. The new terminal is a short drive from T1 – the directions are clearly marked, just keep looking to your right.

A multilevel underground structure, T3 covers an area of approximately 515,000 sqm – the size of 94 football fields. The departure and arrival halls are located 20 metres below the apron and taxiways. There are more than 250 checkin counters, including 32 for first and business class, ten for premium Skywards members, 60 self-service kiosks and 18 counters for oversized baggage located in the car park. The associated ten-storey, 670,000 sqm concourse includes a whole floor of themed lounges to seat more than 2,000 first and business class passengers, a spa, show kitchens and, rumour has it, a wine-tasting room. The whole facility has a whopping 157 elevators, 97 escalators and 82 travelators.

T3’s underground baggage-handling system, one of the deepest in the world, features 14 baggage belts with a total length of 90km, and it can deal with 15,000 bags an hour. The system can transport baggage at 7.5 metres per second and has up to 800 RFID read/write stations for 100 per cent tracking. To eliminate delays, the system can handle bags of any shape. A 300-room hotel and a health club are part of the new complex, which will also boast 2,600 underground parking spaces. Sumit Chopra, general manager of National Car Rental, which has an arrivals counter at T1 and now has a fully fledged car-rental office at T3, says: “We were one of only six [international] car-rental companies that got selected for T3. They were very keen on an international image for T3. Terminal 1 is itself so impressive but T3 is surely the feather in our cap.” Security will also be beefed-up. Taher Ali Ahmed, a UAE national who has served as an airport police officer at Dubai International for the last 18 years, remembers the time when he first joined. “The airport was very small and quiet,” he says. “There were eight departure gates and 80 police officers. Today, we have

500 officers in one shift [at T1] and even that is not enough.” Shopaholics and fans of Dubai Duty Free, the award-winning retail operation of Dubai Airports, will not be disappointed. T3 offers 4,800 sqm of retail space while Concourse 2 has devoted 10,700 sqm to shops. Other milestones coming up at Dubai International before the year ends include the 25th anniversary celebrations of Dubai Duty Free on December 20; this year, Dubai Duty Free expects sales to pass the US$1 billion mark. Dubai Duty Free also has an outlet at Dubai International’s upgraded Al Majlis VIP facility (near T1 and Airport Expo). Like a private airport, with its own immigration desks and 14 separate lounges, the 3,400 sqm facility can be used through advanced booking and payment of Dhs 1,500 (£233) per person, and Dhs 500 (£78) for each additional person.

Arriving, departing or transiting corporate and individual travellers can thus bypass the bustle of the airport terminals and enjoy exclusivity while a personal attendant takes care of baggage, immigration or customs formalities. Passengers are transferred between the aircraft and Al Majlis in Mercedes or Lexus limousines. Jamal Zaal Bin Krishan, the head of Executive Flight Services, says: “At Al Majlis, we extend passengers special privileges and ensure they have a total journey.” The seven-month-old Executive Flight Centre, located within the Dubai Airport Free Zone Authority, caters to the growing private jet clientele swooping into Dubai. It has eight private lounges, its own dutyfree and can park all kinds of aircraft, from 16-seater jets to 100-seater B737s. “A chunk of our customers come from Riyadh [Saudi Arabia],” says Krishan. “Private jets offer a new way of flying, and these are exciting times for aviation in Dubai.

The next big thing

Al Maktoum International, being built in Jebel Ali about 40km from Dubai International, is tipped to be the world’s largest airport. It will be within the 140 sq km Dubai World Central (DWC) airport city and, when complete, will cater to 120 million passengers annually to support the emirate’s aviation, tourism and logistic needs until 2050. The airport will have six parallel runways. DWC will be a multiphase development of six clustered zones, including as many as 60 hotels.

Without revealing details of who the operators will be, Khalid bin Harib, CEO of real estate at DWC, said during the Arabian Travel Market in May: “Based on demand, DWC will have about 60 hotels managed by top international chains.” Commercial City, DWC’s business component, will have the highest concentration – over 30 – of premium hotels while Residential City will house three and four-star hotels and apartments, two of which are set to open by next year. Golf City will include “two super-deluxe resorts”. A cargo terminal is set to open at DWC this year, a low-cost terminal will open next year, followed by an executive jet terminal, the “biggest in the Middle East”.

Express check-in at T1

Dubai Airports recently introduced an express check-in service for passengers travelling with hand luggage at T1. The service enables those travelling light, especially executive travellers, to check in at six new counters located on the floor above the departures area (near the food courts and Costa Coffee) and proceed directly to passport control. The service reduces the average time from check-in to boarding gate by half and is the latest in a series of initiatives taken by Dubai Airports to help travellers make their way through the terminal quickly.

Five things you didn’t know about T1

1 Dubai International has the five-star Dubai International Hotel on the arrivals floor, with 88 rooms featuring flatscreen TVs, wifi internet access and 24-hour services. The hotel also has a business centre offering workstations, secretarial services and conference rooms.

2 The airport has a G-Force Health Club with gym equipment, a swimming pool, shower facilities, male and female saunas, spa baths and steam and massage rooms which are open 24 hours.

3 Dubai International has its own premium-pay lounges (between Gates 8 and 11) which can be used by all passengers. The lounges offer showers, dining, workstations and private rooms. For a quick nap, T1 also has two quiet lounges for all classes of travellers. Passengers can use the special reclining chairs here.

4 The Marhaba Lounge is an opulent facility with food court, business centre and relaxation area. Between Gates 23 and 25, it’s open to all passengers for a nominal fee.

5 Emirates’ 192-seat first class lounge near Gate 22 has five private rooms with double beds, TV, trouser press and en suite bathrooms. You can check in early to shower, work, drink and dine before your flight.

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