Dubai overtakes Heathrow as top international airport

A file picture taken on May 27, 2012, an aerial view shows Dubai international airport, home to the national carrier Emirates Airways. -- PHOTO: AFP
A file picture taken on May 27, 2012, an aerial view shows Dubai international airport, home to the national carrier Emirates Airways. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man walks towards the departure lounge at Dubai International Airport's new Terminal 3. -- PHOTO: AFP

DUBAI (AFP) - Dubai airport has soared ahead of London's Heathrow, riding a boom in long-haul flights between Asia and the West to become the world's top international travel hub, it said Tuesday.

Traffic at the airport increased 6.1 per cent last year to 70.47 million passengers, Dubai Airports said, adding that it expected a further surge in traveller numbers in 2015.

Dubai International is home to Emirates, the Middle East's largest carrier, which along with Abu Dhabi's Etihad and Qatar Airways has seized a significant portion of travel between the West, Asia and Australasia.

"This historic milestone is the culmination of over five decades of double-digit average growth," Dubai Airports Chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum said in a statement.

"The shared goal is to make Dubai a global centre of aviation and we are nearing that goal," he said.

Dubai Airports chief executive Paul Griffiths said Dubai International would boost its annual capacity to 90 million passengers this year with the opening of Concourse D - a new hall for arrivals and departures.

Oil-poor Dubai has spent years trying to diversify its economy with core sectors now including trade, transport and tourism.

Aided by a rapid expansion in capacity, aviation is expected to account for more than a third of the emirate's gross domestic product by 2020.

London Heathrow by contrast has struggled to grow, with a commission still studying proposals to increase capacity there and at Gatwick airport, south of London.

The two are among five airports serving the UK capital that form the busiest hub in the world with around 135 million passengers a year.

Heathrow handled 68.1 million international passengers in 2014, according to airport figures.

The British hub still outclassed Dubai International in overall numbers, handling 73.4 million passengers if travellers on domestic flights are included.

Dubai's increase in passenger numbers comes despite a slight fall in the number of flights taking off in 2014, due to an 80-day runway refurbishment project.

Emirates Airline in particular has bought more wide-bodied aircraft, including the world's largest fleet of Airbus A380 superjumbos, helping the average number of passengers per flight at Dubai to grow to more than 200.

Flights to and from Western Europe saw the biggest passenger growth in Dubai, followed closely by destinations in the Indian subcontinent, Asia and North America.

European airlines, notably Air France-KLM and Lufthansa, have voiced concern at increased activity by Gulf-based companies, complaining of differences in taxation that they say cause unfair competition.

Dubai's other airport, Al-Maktoum International, opened for passengers in 2013 and will be capable of handling 120 million travellers when completed in 2022.

The project launched before the global financial crisis hit in 2009, and was originally planned to feature a 160-million-passenger capacity and six runways.

The ambitious plan appeared to have been put on the back burner due to the economic downturn, and the airport instead opened cargo operations in 2010.

A small number of passenger flights began there in 2013 after repeated delays.

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