DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Traffic more than doubled last year at Dubai's airport, the world's busiest for international flights, but has yet to fully recover after the coronavirus pandemic, according to figures released Tuesday.
Even as the number of passengers has surged, the state-of-the-art airport in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates has avoided the travel chaos that rippled across North America and Europe last year, as it maintained capacity through the darkest days of the pandemic.
Over 66 million passengers moved through the airport, known as DXB, in 2022, up from 29.1 million in 2021, when global travel was still snarled by pandemic restrictions. But it remains well below the pre-pandemic milestone of 86.4 million logged in 2019.
Paul Griffiths, the airport's CEO, told The Associated Press that he expects traffic to return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year or early 2024, with a boost from China's easing of its “zero COVID” policies. The airport currently forecasts 78 million passengers in 2023.
“We’re optimistic that the traffic levels every month will be regularly over the seven million mark, which means that we’re very, very precisely on a trajectory to recover to the pre-pandemic levels, if not this year, certainly by the first half of 2024," he said.
“We’ve now got seven cities in China with 25 flights a week with five airlines," he said. "That I think is going to be the new engine of growth.”
Located at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Dubai's airport has long been the busiest worldwide for international flights. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the busiest overall, including domestic routes, according to flight data provider OAG.
DXB is is linked to 229 destinations across 99 countries, with routes operated by scores of international carriers.
Tourism is a major industry in the UAE, which has plowed its oil wealth into lavish infrastructure over the past few decades, giving rise to the futuristic cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Dubai was one of the first major destinations to lift its tourism lockdown. Major sporting and entertainment events have brought even more people to the region in recent years, and the UAE is set to host this year's COP28 U.N. climate talks.
As the pandemic ushered in worldwide lockdowns and travel bans in early 2020, the UAE made it a “strategic priority” to ensure that it would be ready for the eventual recovery, Griffiths said.
“We always believed that growth following the pandemic would be very sharp and very quick to recover, so we didn’t retrench the huge number of employees that a lot of other airports and airlines around the world undertook.”
As travelers across North America and Europe huddled in packed airports last summer watching screens light up with delays and cancellations, passengers moved through Dubai with ease.
The airport says the average wait time at passport control upon arrival was less than 13 minutes, and at security was less than three minutes, for more than 95% of passengers. It boasts a baggage handling success rate of 99.8%, with just over two mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.
India remained the top destination of passengers moving through the airport, followed by Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom. Neighboring Saudi Arabia will host the first hajj pilgrimage since the lifting of pandemic restrictions, with millions of Muslims from across the world expected to travel to Mecca and Medina this summer.
The UAE has also seen a growing influx of visitors from Russia since the start of the Ukraine war, fueling a local real estate boom.
“If we don't get back to pre-pandemic levels by Q4 this year I'll be surprised, but it won't be much beyond Q4 2023 that we'll see traffic back to where it was pre-pandemic," Griffiths said.