Dubai’s main airport attracted 2 million more passengers than London Heathrow in the first quarter, with only work on the Gulf hub’s runways likely to stop it becoming the busiest international crossroads this year.
Dubai International, home base to Emirates, already the top airline by cross-border traffic, handled 18.4 million travelers in the period, beating Heathrow in each of the three months as the runway-restricted London hub struggled to add flights.
Heathrow, the world’s leading international airport for decades, lured 66.7 million cross-border passengers in 2013 out of a total of 72.4 million. That was 813,000 more than Dubai, where 99 percent of customers are on international trips.
While Emirates continues to pile on passengers with the world’s biggest fleet of Airbus Group NV A380 superjumbos, a program of runway repairs is set to cut Dubai International’s capacity by about one-quarter for 80 days starting on May 1.
That could stave off leapfrogging Heathrow beyond 2014. Dubai Airports Chief Executive Officer Paul Griffiths said last month that Dubai International is “on track to take over the top spot by 2015.”
Dubai is the end destination or point of origin for relatively few of the passengers who fly there, with the Emirates business model structured around intercontinental trips between Europe and the Americas and Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The carrier will maximize use of its biggest planes during the runway closures to help limit the capacity hit.
The third-ranked airport by international passengers last year was Hong Kong, according to figures from Airports Council International, which counts the city as separate to China. Paris Charles de Gaulle ranked fourth and Singapore fifth.
International passenger counts tend to be higher at hubs located in smaller states and countries, with only one of the top 30 airports by that measure -- New York John F. Kennedy -- located in the U.S., the world’s biggest aviation market.
While a majority of people at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson -- the busiest airport with 94.4 million passengers -- catch domestic flights, many of the trips are longer than Heathrow’s services to continental Europe or those from Dubai to India.