Today, Dubai International Airport announced that it's reached a milestone. It is now the busiest airport in the world for international travelers, a claim that has long belonged to Heathrow, in London. Here's the thing: It won't be for long.
There are dozens of larger airports underway across the Middle East and Asia this year that plan to do far more business than Dubai International. In fact, one of them is only a 45-minute drive away for the new champ. Al Maktoum International Airport, directly south of Dubai, which is expected to eventually handle 160 million passengers a year by 2027—more than twice the 70 million visitors that Dubai International Airport saw this year.
In a 2013 story about the rise of the mega-airport, The Guardian's Rowan Moore called Dubai "an airport with an emirate attached." That's total hyperbole, but it gets to a truth that Dubai is actively courting economic growth through the creation of airports. According to Yahoo, air travel will eventually account for a third of its GDP within five years. That's astounding, considering that 50 years ago, Dubai's only airport looked like this:
Image by Patche99z.
Part of Dubai's push towards air travel is unique—it doesn't have the manufacturing economy of Asia or the natural resources of its Gulf neighbors. But even in those more diverse economies, airports are springing up like million-dollar mushrooms. There's Beijing Daxing International Airport (120 to 200 million fliers a year). Hamad International Airport (50 million to 93 million passengers a year). Abu Dhabi Midfield Terminal (20 to 40 million passengers a year).
The future Al Maktoum International Airport, in Dubai.
When we're talking about complexes that are literally the size (and population) of small cities, it's a short jump to talk about them as pieces of urban planning. That's exactly what urban planners and developers are doing—through ideas like the "aerotropolis," or a city laid out around and focused on an airport. The cities of the future will succeed and fail based on their connectivity. The better the airport—and the access—the better suited a city will be.
Cities and airports are becoming more like equal partners, dependent on each other, rather than airports that exist to simply service existing cities. It's inevitable—but there's one big caveat to the rise of the mega-airport, and the airport-centered city: The continuing free flow of fuel. That's not likely to change any time soon—but in a theoretical future where air travel is no more, cities that depend entirely on airports won't be healthy cities for long.
Image: AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili