What’s the environmental impact of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) decade of relentless aviation growth? In 2000, Dubai didn’t warrant mention on a register of the world’s Top 100 airports. By 2010, it had soared to 13th place, reaching 4th place a year later. At this rate, Dubai will overtake Heathrow as the world’s biggest international airport within the next three years, according to Willie Walsh, the Head of International Airlines Group, in a speech to London’s House of Commons Transport Committee.
How will airport expansion incorporate – at a minimum – environmental stewardship – and, ideally – environmental leadership? Originally built on a sparsely developed plateau, located about a 10 minute drive from downtown Dubai, the near 9,000-acre facility is now surrounded by dense residential and commercial development.
A recent report by the Centre for Aviation attributes the traffic swell to home-grown carriers including Flydubai, Emirates, Etihad and Air Arabia. The airport also processes a huge volume of Asian traffic, a surging sector for both passengers (PAX) and goods.
In 2012, the UAE’s three largest airports (Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah) processed a combined traffic of 80 million PAX. Booming figures attract foreign carriers, which in turn, increase PAX numbers. UAE airports are nearing the total airport traffic of New York City, which hovers around 110 million annual PAX. (New York’s major airports include J.F. Kennedy International, Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia International).
London is currently the world’s busiest air transport system: in 2011, 133 million PAX used its five major airports which include Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick, Luton and London City.
DXB, the Emirates Airline hub, is the largest of the UAE airports, but Abu Dhabi and Sharjah are growing at even faster rates (calculated off smaller traffic baselines). Important to note that these airports are only about 75 miles apart.
Economic implications will be far-reaching. The airports benefit from the UAE’s rebound from the 2008 banking crisis and relative-to-the-region geo-political stability. But as they grow into one of the world’s premier air networks, competing hubs are starved of new capacity.
The report indicates that DBX will eclipse London Heathrow as the world’s single largest airport for international passenger traffic by 2020. However, Walsh predicts that Dubai will overtake Heathrow by 2015, according to a Guide2Dubai.
DXB can mimic successful strategies from its London and New York counterparts to remediate negative impacts of noise, air emissions, and congestion to area roadways. Better still if they adopt a proactive approach to minimize these “bad-neighbor” attributes as part of initial planning.
Although the airport invested resources in an impressive flash-mob dance last year, their website fails to mention an environmental mission statement or policy. Might be wise to re-enact that media event; skip the dancers this time and instead invite architects, engineers and environmentalists with proven aviation pedigree to convene over the master plan.
Imagine the planet’s largest airport also becoming a carbon-neutral first.
Image of Dubai Airport at night by Shutterstock.