A window washer cleans up at a new concourse at Dubai’s airport, which is increasingly replacing Europe as a crossroads for global travelers. (Kamran Jebreili, The Associated Press)DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — It’s 1 a.m., and the sprawling airport in this desert city is bustling. Enough languages fill the air to make a United Nations translator’s head spin.
Thousands of fliers arrive every hour from China, Australia, India and nearly everywhere else on the planet. Few venture outside the terminal, which spans the length of 24 football fields. They come instead to catch connecting flights to somewhere else.
If it weren’t for three ambitious and rapidly expanding government-owned airlines — Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — they might have never come to the Middle East.
For generations, international fliers have stopped over in London, Paris and Amsterdam. Now, they increasingly switch planes in Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi, making this region the new crossroads of global travel. The switch is driven by airports and airlines alike, all backed by governments that see aviation as the way to make their countries bigger players in the global economy.
Passengers are won over by the fancy new planes and top-notch service. But the real key to the airlines’ incredible growth is geography. Their hubs in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are an eight-hour flight from two-thirds of the world’s population, including a growing middle class in India, China and Southeast Asia that is eager to travel.
In the past five years, the annual number of passengers traveling through Dubai International Airport — home to Emirates — has jumped from 28.8 million to 51 million, a 77 percent increase. The airport now sees more passengers than New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“Everybody accepts that the balance of global economic power is shifting to the east. The geographic position of the gulf hubs makes them much more relevant today,” says Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways and Iberia.