It is 5.30 in the morning and I am standing in an airport terminal that is at the crossroads of the world. The departures board clicks off destinations like a Las Vegas slot machine — Madrid, Glasgow, Male, Jeddah, Damascus, Lagos, Accra, Colombo, Beirut, Cape Town — and a shifting tide of humanity moves through as it does here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The terminal is heaving. Groups of Japanese are being led by flag-waving guides, European businessmen dressed in Armani are heading for the first-class lounges, and young couples are sleeping side-by-side on the floor beside palm trees while endless travelators move passengers from bars to shops to departure gates. At the shops travellers are buying bottles of Petrus wine, Rolex watches and De Beers diamonds while they wait for their flights to be called.
There are even airport staff wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Can I Help You?” and combing the terminal’s corridors in search of distressed customers.
You’ve guessed it: this is not Heathrow, but the airport that in three years’ time will overtake Heathrow in terms of the number of passengers served – 66 million a year – and which, soon after, will be running at 90 million and be ranked alongside Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport in the United States as the world’s busiest.
This is Dubai International Airport. Terminal 3, where I am standing, covers 370 acres and has 82 moving walkways, 97 escalators and 180 check-in counters. It is the world’s largest air terminal, twice the size of our much-vaunted Terminal 5.
As a passenger experience Dubai airport is slightly overwhelming, but at the same time quite thrilling. You really feel you are at the crossroads of the world.
Everything is bigger, better, faster, and woe betide you if you find yourself drifting around in the wrong part of the terminal — the distance from one end to the other is getting on for a mile. In terms of Airport Council International (ACI) rankings, Dubai, along with Singapore’s Changi, Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok and Beijing International, is one of the best in the world.
Compare this with Heathrow as we head into the summer at our principal airport. Although it handles a lot more, Heathrow was designed to serve only 45 million passengers a year. When it is functioning at its best there is little more than a 45-second gap between aircraft taking off and landing, so even a small disruption to that timetable has dramatic repercussions, as we discovered last December when a snowstorm caused Heathrow, in the words of one American journalist, “to spread its failure like a raging virus throughout the international routes, crippling transatlantic flights, aborting connections throughout Europe and the Middle East and causing cancellations as far away as Sydney, Hong Kong and Singapore”.
I was one of the unfortunates caught up in that December debacle, spending nearly four hours sitting on board a British Airways aircraft waiting in vain for a de-icing machine to appear before finally being offloaded into the night.
While BA did its best, even managing to get me on a flight to New York the following day, Heathrow descended into chaos and quickly came to resemble a Third World refugee camp. On a good day I would rank Heathrow alongside the best airports in the world; on bad days it is among the worst.
Which is why the British Airports Authority and its principal customer, BA, have long argued that the only way for the airport to operate more efficiently is for it to expand. However a two-decade-long campaign to add a third runway has ended in rejection from the current Government and the issue now seems dead and buried.
For those who are running Dubai International — and who are planning the second Dubai airport, the five-runway Dubai World Central — the recent news that Heathrow is one of the least popular and worst-performing airports on the planet is no news at all. The world has moved on and, as Dubai International is proving, a tectonic shift in global aviation is taking place, away from Heathrow and its European rivals, and heading inexorably to the Middle East.
With both climate (no snowbound winters) and geography (more than half the world’s population is within eight hours’ flying time of Dubai) on their side, the Emirates appear to be in the pound seats.
The shift will have a profound effect on Britain’s aviation future. According to Richard Goodfellow, British Airways’ head of news, between 40 and 50 per cent of BA’s terminal 5 passengers are what is known in the industry as transfer traffic — people passing through London on their way to or from other cities.
So, if you’re flying on a British Airways 747 to New York, of the 340 seats occupied, more than 150 passengers are typically likely to be transfers to or from other destinations. If you are flying to the US’s west coast that ratio shifts and, according to Goodfellow, maybe 220 will be transfer passengers and only 120 direct.
The ratio changes even more significantly on flights to and from the Indian subcontinent, where the hypothetical 747 will now be carrying 250 transfer passengers and only 90 directs. As Goodfellow points out “some of these flights exist only because of the transfer services through Terminal 5”.
As I see it, standing here in the middle of bustling, organised and growing Dubai International, Heathrow in its current configuration is clearly no longer fit for purpose as Europe’s premier international aviation hub. Already it has fallen from first to fifth place in the number of destinations it serves, and travellers starting their journeys in Britain’s regional airports are increasingly avoiding Heathrow, or “Hellrow” as it is now routinely referred to on message boards.
As it happens, the two principal players in the growth of Dubai’s commercial aviation industry — Paul Griffiths, the chief executive of Dubai Airports, and Tim Clark, the Emirates’ president — are British. Griffiths ran Gatwick for three years and Clark was a British Caledonian executive in the Seventies. All of which makes them rather well qualified to assess Britain’s slow retreat in the shadows of their own spectacular ascendancy.
While both express a sympathy for our predicament — mainly that we are an old-world democracy with so many conflicting interests that growth and development are persistently constrained – they are critical of BAA, airline management and the Government for allowing aviation to flounder. They blame short-sighted management for not taking advantage of what they call “an aero-political network” that the British, French and Germans inherited from their empires.
Clark says that European airline chiefs failed to anticipate “an extraordinary, almost geometric, growth in demand in certain markets, linking Asia, Africa and South America.
“In the old days the number of people travelling between Shanghai and Côte d’Ivoire was probably five a week. Now it’s 5,000.”
Griffiths believes that Britain’s difficulty “is there are so many conflicting interests, and the West’s obsession with democracy does have a downside — it means there is no visionary, long-term strategy in a society that changes government every four to five years.
“In Dubai the prosperity of the nation has grown around air travel, and the benefit of aviation – which represents 25 per cent of GDP – is revered.”
Thus the growth of the airport is planned alongside the carefully calibrated expansion of the national airline. Emirates has a superb fleet of 150 aircraft, which includes 15 superjumbo Airbus A380s, and has a further 200 on order, including 75 more super-jumbos, which Clark says isn’t enough.
Griffiths is very critical of the high levels of Airline Passenger Duty (APD) that burden travellers to and from Britain. A family of four will pay £340 in tax for a long-haul flight out of Heathrow compared with £15 on a flight from France and zero on a flight from Dubai. “Travel is such a soft target,” says Griffiths, “and clearly none of that money is finding its way back to improve the infrastructure.”
Clark is even more critical, accusing European aviation executives of being short-sighted, protectionist and, only “paying lip service to the new order”. The new order is the exponentially expanding Chinese and Indian markets and the sudden spurts of internationalism now apparent in Africa, Latin America and Far Eastern countries such as Vietnam.
However, both these British playmakers think it is too early to write Britain off as a force in international aviation for, as Clark says, “the Chinese and Asian markets are big enough for all of us. There are cities in China we haven’t heard of with populations half the size of the United Kingdom and they’re being served by three international flights a week.”
According to Clark, for all Heathrow’s problems and constraints “it remains for airlines the most popular international hub on the planet. You cannot underestimate the pull, the magnetism of London and the UK. Most emerging airlines want to go to London first, even if those airlines are francophone or German.”
If there is to be no third runway at our principal airport, he believes a lot can be done with a relaxation of the curfew rules. At present Heathrow is closed between 11pm and 5am. However, the new generation of jet aircraft such as A380s and Boeing 777s are far quieter than the last — a fully loaded 777-300 is 40 per cent quieter than existing 747-400s – and if you were to add an extra hour of take-off and landings on either side of the day and restrict that to low-noise aircraft you would be adding considerable capacity to Heathrow. It certainly would take some of the pressure off.
Clark says that he has had talks with government ministers and Emirates has been invited to make a presentation. “The proof is in the decibel count and if it works then all is not lost for Heathrow.
“Also, it will give the environmentalists what they want — more fuel-efficient aircraft carrying more people and leaving less of a carbon footprint — and incentivise the airlines to buy the new generation of aircraft.”
However, the best long-term solution, according to both men, is the so-called Boris Airport, the London mayor’s proposal for a Thames Estuary airport that would have to be built from scratch.
Griffiths says this would give Britain an airport capable of expansion “for 100 years, but this would require a 50-year business plan and a political will that has not been in evidence in recent years”.
Clark, who was on Johnson’s advisory board for the Estuary airport, argues that if Heathrow is not going to expand – and that now appears to be a given – London needs another airport if it is going to compete internationally through the 21st century. Unless we are careful the lack of runway capacity will strangle one of Britain’s leading industries, one that provides 1.8 per cent of the country’s GDP.
But as we struggle to and from dear old Heathrow this summer, it is the overcrowding, the delays and the inconveniences that will be uppermost in British travellers’ minds. Perhaps that will galvanise us into pressing our leaders to follow Dubai’s example and develop a visionary long-term strategy that will serve the travellers of the future.
Until then, I’m afraid, it’s Heathrow warts and all.