DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Dubai International Airport, the world's busiest for international travel, announced Tuesday it served 41.6 million passengers in the first half of this year — exceeding figures for the same period in 2019 as travelers return to the air after the lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic.
The airport, home to the long-haul carrier Emirates in skyscraper-studded Dubai, long has served as a barometer for the aviation industry worldwide. The new figures at the airport known as DXB reflect figures offered by the International Air Transport Association that traffic worldwide is at 94% of pre-COVID levels.
“Dubai International Airport has once again recorded for the ninth year running that it is the world’s busiest international airport with a very, very strong first half,” Paul Griffiths, the CEO of Dubai Airports, told The Associated Press. “The most important part of that is that we’ve reached 100% of our pre-pandemic numbers, the same numbers as recorded in the first half of 2019.”
The 41.6 million passengers is up some 50% from the 27.9 million recorded the same time last year, as airlines now have more planes and routes running again.
Passenger traffic this year largely has been driven by the airport’s standard travel destinations — India, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and Pakistan. Russia has also been a major market as Dubai remains one of the few places still open to Russians amid Moscow’s war on Ukraine.
Dubai was among the first cities to reopen to tourists in the pandemic. That helped boost the city-state's tourism industry, as attractions like the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and the sail-shaped Burj Al-Arab luxury hotel draw both visitors and transit passengers out of airport lounges.
Dubai surpassed its pre-pandemic, half-year tourist figures this year with 8.55 million international visitors. Dubai hotels saw an average occupancy of 78% during that period — ranking among some of the world's top destinations.
“What happened pre-pandemic is we saw 60% transit and 40% point to point, but that’s actually reversed,” Griffiths said. “What we’re now seeing is 60% of that traffic number is point to point and 40% is transit. So that’s a very notable statistic and underpins the appeal of Dubai as a very, very strong tourist destination.”
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport remains the planet’s busiest passenger airport overall.
Emirates also saw its most profitable year ever in 2022, earning $2.9 billion as passengers returned to its long-haul Boeing 777s and its double-decker Airbus A380s. The return of the A380 has seen the average number of passengers per flight jump at DXB to 214, Griffiths said.
Griffiths said given the demand, the airport has bumped its projected passenger numbers for 2023 to 85 million, just shy of 2019's annual traffic of 86.3 million passengers. The airport saw 89.1 million passengers in 2018 — its busiest-ever year before the pandemic. DXB had 66 million passengers pass through it in 2022.
For Dubai International Airport, however, the swift business also revives a major challenge forgotten during the pandemic — it is boxed in. The airport sits in the northern reaches of Dubai, bracketed by two major highways to the east and west and vast neighborhoods to its north and south. That prohibits expanding the size of the two-runway airfield.
“We are landlocked on all four sides because I think back in the ’60s when this airport was a very small single runway field, no one really saw at that time the huge development” coming, Griffiths said of DXB. “I think it’s testament to the developments we have undertaken that within that landlocked site, we’ve been able to produce real estate, which has become the world’s busiest international airport.”
He said the airport has a plan to spend as much as $2.7 billion to expand and upgrade its three terminals and increase the number of remote aircraft parking spaces on the airport's apron. Those improvements “will probably see us right for about the next 12 to 13 years,” he said.
That likely will extend the horizon further for major work at Al Maktoum International Airport at Dubai World Central, the city-state's second airfield some 45 kilometers (28 miles) away in its far southern reaches. While used by commercial airlines when Qatar hosted the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the second airport that opened in 2010 largely sees cargo and private aircraft flights.
Dubai International Airport now serves 257 destinations across 104 countries.