Dubai’s Busy Airport Sees Passenger Traffic Drop 40% in 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Dubai International Airport, the world's busiest airport for international travel, handled some 40% less passenger traffic in the first half of 2021, compared to the same period last year, its chief executive said Wednesday. 

The decline came as more contagious coronavirus variants cut off the hub's biggest source markets and continued to clobber the global aviation industry. 

However, CEO Paul Griffiths remains optimistic for the crucial east-west transit point as authorities gradually re-open Dubai's key routes to the Indian subcontinent and Britain.

The 10.6 million passengers that passed through the airport over the past six months "is still very positive," Griffiths told The Associated Press. "I think coupled with the restrictions easing that we're now seeing, (it) will bode very well for a satisfactory end to the year." 

The airport, which saw 86.4 million people squeeze through before the pandemic hit in 2019, has held the title of the world's busiest since it beat out London's Heathrow seven years ago. It even kept the crown as the virus turned the world's biggest airports into massive voids. But the once-teeming terminals still have a long way to go before seeing pre-pandemic passenger levels. 

The hopes stoked by the United Arab Emirates' speedy vaccination campaign took a hit as the delta variant emerged, prompting familiar border closures and capacity cuts, and hurting the mammoth airport, hub of long-haul carrier Emirates. Dubai World Central, the Gulf city's second airport that went out of use for commercial flights during the pandemic, appears to be a parking lot for Emirates' iconic fleet of double-decker Airbus A380s.

Although the UAE recently lifted an entry ban on India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, which are home to most of the vast foreign workforce in the federation, stringent vaccination requirements still bar many from boarding flights to the country. 

"All of those South Asian markets are incredibly important to Dubai, they're a very important transit opportunity, of course, as people go to all parts of northern Europe," said Griffiths. "It's very important we get those traffic flows back." 

There are reasons to expect a rebound, Griffiths added. One of the airport's two main terminals, mothballed amid the pandemic, returned to use last month to prepare for an influx of holiday-makers escaping wintry weather and attending the World Expo in October. 

And after months of frustration and confusion, the U.K. last week removed the UAE from its "red list" that ordered all travelers to quarantine for 10 days in costly, government-approved hotels. The upgrade to "amber" elicited a strong sigh of relief throughout the federation of seven sheikhdoms, home to some 120,000 British expats. London was ranked as the top destination city for Dubai's airport in 2020, with 1.15 million customers. 

Griffiths declined to put a number on the financial hit, but said the "loss of traffic (to the U.K.) has had a very, very significant impact on the economy of both countries." 

So thrilled was Emirates about the flight resumption that the airline plopped a woman on the pinnacle of the tallest tower on the planet, Burj Khalifa, and filmed her raising placards that implored Brits to fly Emirates. 

The stakes are indeed high for Dubai, where the economy thrives not on oil, like in other Gulf Arab sheikhdoms, but on travel and tourism. Emirates remains the linchpin of the wider empire known as "Dubai Inc.," an interlocking series of businesses owned by the city-state. 

There are signs of looming uncertainty, with the airport yet to to hire back any of the 5,000 employees it furloughed during the devastation of the pandemic last year. But when asked whether Dubai Airport would hold onto its title — one of many prized superlatives in the extravagant emirate home to the world's tallest building and biggest mall — Griffiths didn't miss a beat. 

"I have no doubt in my mind," he said. "We're gearing up to expect a huge surge in volume."


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