Airport rivalry: To be the world’s best or busiest

WHICH honour stands an airport in better stead – the world’s best or busiest, if it isn’t both? According to Airports International Council, Dubai International is today the world’s busiest airport for international passenger traffic, overtaking London Heathrow. But the Middle East airport did not even make it to the top three positions of the annual Skytrax’s World Best Airport Survey in the last five years, but was ranked eighth in last year’s category of airports serving at least 50 million passengers.

Dubai handled 68.9 million passengers compared to Heathrow’s 67.8 million. Hong Kong International (HKIA) was third with 61.9 million. Making up the top five were Charles de Gaulle of Paris (58.1 million) and Amsterdam Schiphol (54.2 million). Singapore Changi, which was Skytrax’s best airport in three of the last five years and closely rivalled by HKIA and Korea’s Incheon, slipped from fifth to sixth place with 53.2 million, followed by Frankfurt (52.6 million), Incheon (43.5 million), Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi (37.0 million) and Turkey’s Istanbul (36.9 million). 

Is there a relationship between being the best and being the busiest?

Yes, to some degree. Being the best is the credential you flaunt to enhance your status. Driven by the competition among regional rivals, this works like a repeated circle of cause and effect as airports pile on the frills to differentiate themselves. The Asian trio of Changi, HKIA and Incheon which dominate the top ranks is a clear example of the competition. Each airport is a “city” in its own right, offering a range of facilities and services outside the ambit of the traditional airport model. Changi has a swimming pool for travellers who wish to soak in the tropical sun. Dining at HKIA is something to beat. At Incheon, foreign travellers may indulge in cultural art and craft activities free of charge. At all three airports, if you can afford the time and money, it is shop until you drop. Now Changi is upping the ante with a S$1.7 billion (US$1.4 billion) Project Jewel upgrading programme that will feature a bio-dome complex housing an indoor waterfall, a lush garden and many more shops. Targeted for completion in 2017, this will make Changi a world showcase airport. (See Changi Airport raises the bar to be world’s best airport, Dec 18, 2014)

But surely achieving the best airport accolade cannot be an end in itself but a means to attracting more customers, both airlines and their passengers. Changi, HKIA and Incheon may be said to have done well in relating both aspects. All three airports are efficient, well-connected and offer an interesting if not comfortable respite for the transit passenger. But it is HKIA that is leading the race, as Asia’s busiest airport for international passenger traffic. HKIA’s volume grew more than 6% last year, compared to Changi’s 2%. Incheon’s traffic increased by 7.8%. Interestingly, Suvarnabhumi suffered a drop of 9.4%, in no small part attributed to the unstable political situation in Thailand in the past couple of years.

Geographical advantage may shift

Changi blamed its slower growth on geopolitical concerns that have reduced traffic to the region and through its airport. Leisure traffic to the region usually includes a stopover in Singapore and Changi is strategically positioned to fan out to neighbouring countries and tourist spots. However there are more reasons for Changi to be concerned about. Changi (including its predecessor) has since its inception thrived on the geographical advantage of being at the crossroads between Asia Pacific and Europe. But it should not take that advantage for granted. HKIA, situated at the doorstep of the large China hinterland, is competing with Changi as the gateway to the rest of Asia as well. In fact, any neighbouring airport such as Suvarnabhumi and Kuala Lumpur International (KLIA) could geographically compete effectively with Changi as the regional hub, but Changi`s excellent infrastructure and use of cutting edge technology continues to hold sway over them. Unfortunately Changi`s hub status has also been affected by more airlines operating direct flights between destinations, although it may find consolation in the higher growth of budget operators in recent years.

Dubai International, Courtesy AP

Dubai International, Courtesy AP


Technological advances in long range aircraft design have also shown how geographical advantage may shift. In the early jet era, Middle East airports such as Bahrain and Abu Dhabi were little more than necessary technical stops for flights between Asia/Australiasia and Europe. Qantas used Changi as its hub for traffic on the kangaroo route, skipping the Middle East. However, Dubai manages to reverse the region’s erstwhile misfortune to become the one-stop alternative to Changi, resulting in Qantas shifting its hub from Changi to Dubai in 2013. This arose from an agreement between Qantas and Emirates Airlines that allows Qantas customers to connect flights on Emirates onward to destinations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This has dented the Changi hub status somewhat, and Dubai has stepped up the competition positioning the airport as the hub for traffic from North America as well.

Changi should feel flattered by Dubai’s emulation in the rivalry, the way that Singapore Airlines (SIA) could be proud as the model for the young Emirates. Both Changi and Dubai are continually expanding and upgrading, offering almost similar facilities right down to Changi’s lush tropical foliage and Dubai’s Zen gardens. While Changi continues to be the darling of transit and transfer travellers, Dubai is working to its advantage its proximity to Europe, West Asia and Africa; the lower airport charges that it levies on both airlines and their customers compared to Changi; and the aggressive expansion of Emirates, no less its reputation as one of the world’s best airlines, to bring more passengers to the home airport whether directly or through network connectivity. Indeed, the choice of airport is more an airline’s prerogative, much less the decision of travellers although increasingly the “airport city” concept in the design of a modern airport aims to pamper the passenger with lavish non-aviation facilities, services and activities, promoting it as a destination in itself.

Making to the list of world’s best airport makes good promotion material. No doubt it gives the airport a competitive edge to also boost the odds of making it to the list of world’s busiest airport. But it is no guarantee of a placing. London Heathrow which held the top spot for years until dethroned by Dubai is congested and continually bursting at its seam, not quite user friendly and far from being a scream compared to many Asian airports. Yet it is almost every airline’s dream to fly there, not for non-aviation frills but for similar operational reasons such as infrastructure and connectivity that have favoured Changi, HKIA and Dubai. While working at being best as encompassing efficiency, service orientation and lavish facilities is a means to an end, how much that end justifies the means will be reflected in the traffic volume the airport is able to attract consequently.

It looks like Dubai intends to maintain its lead as the world’s busiest airport lest Heathrow resurges. It has gone past an earlier goal of beating Changi at the number game. CEO of Dubai Airports Paul Griffiths said: “Looking forward to 2015, the prospects remain exceedingly bright, and we expect to maintain the growth achieved this year in the next 12 months. Therefore Dubai Airports continues to invest in world-class facilities to meet this demand, including the opening of the new Concourse D in the first half of next year.”

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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