Back to the future in the Middle East

Written by editor

Twenty-five years ago, the aviation market in the UAE looked very different from today. Back in 1987 there were just 24,000 departing flights from the UAE, providing fewer than 6 million seats.

Twenty-five years ago, the aviation market in the UAE looked very different from today. Back in 1987 there were just 24,000 departing flights from the UAE, providing fewer than 6 million seats. But by 2012 this had mushroomed to nearly 218,000 departing flights each year and 49 million seats, which equates to 5,000 new seats every day for the last quarter century. Here, we review the fortunes 
of two of the region’s biggest – Dubai and Abu Dhabi – and use OAG’s new OAG Analyser product to explore how these two gateway’s networks have evolved in recent years.

Both Abu Dhabi (AUH) and Dubai (DXB) international airports have been instrumental in growing the UAE’s aviation market, collectively accounting for 90% of the UAE’s flights and seat capacity. In the last 10 years, DXB has seen an average annual growth in flights of 10%, whilst AUH has grown at an average rate of 9% each year since 2003, well above the global average of a 2% increase over the last 10 years. In the last 12 months alone, carriers at both airports have added a total of 3.5 million additional seats.

AUH is the UAE’s second biggest airport with 45 airlines providing 9.2 million seats in the 12 months to August 2012. Rewind 25 years and the airport’s network was much smaller, with services to just 46 destinations focused across the Middle East, Europe and South Asia. Today there are services to some 95 destinations, extending to North America, South Africa and Australia.

In the past year, there have been just over 46,000 scheduled flights. In 2003, the Middle East accounted for the greatest share of flights, with 60% of the market and some 12,500 seats. Although intra-Middle East traffic has grown to 17,000 flights in 2012, the share of the market has fallen to 38%, while Asia-Pacific and Europe have grown to take a bigger share of the market. Flights to the Asia-Pacific region grew from 5,400 in 2003 to over 16,000 in 2012, a threefold increase in just 10 years.

The biggest country market is India with 800,000 seats in 2012. Flights to Europe have also seen a significant increase in the last 10 years, with frequency increasing by six times to reach 8,600 in 2012. Doha is the biggest individual destination by seat capacity from AUH, with 474,000 seats in 2012.

Services at AUH are dominated by home carrier Etihad, which provided 64% of seat capacity in 2012 and operated the equivalent of 81 departing flights per day from AUH to 72 destinations. The Middle East is still Etihad’s biggest region with 33% 
of all flights, although Asia-Pacific is a close second with 31% of flights. In 2012, Etihad launched services to six new destinations, four of which are in Africa.

The phenomenal growth of Dubai International Airport and its position as a hub has been a key element in the development of the UAE’s aviation market. DXB now accounts for 73% of the UAE’s seat capacity, with 36 million seats in the last 12 months, and 144,000 flights. In 1987, there were just 52 destinations served from DXB, today this is around four times greater, with services to 205 destinations, operated by 108 airlines. Twenty-five years ago there were 34 daily departures, and now in 2012 there are 405, nearly 12 times as many.

Network maps then and now show just how dramatically the airport’s network has grown in the last 25 years beyond the Middle East, Europe and parts of South East Asia into other regions, and also shows the significantly increased concentration of services to Europe and South Asia. Ten years ago, the largest market from DXB was for intra-regional flights within the Middle East. Although this has almost doubled in the last 10 years, very strong growth in traffic beyond the Middle East has meant that intra-regional traffic has fallen from 43% of all flights in 2003, to account for 34% in 2012.

The fastest growing region for flights from DXB to destinations beyond the Middle East has been Asia-Pacific, which now accounts for a third of all flights from DXB. In 2003, there were 46 daily flights to the Asia-Pacific region, which had almost tripled to 135 by 2012, or nearly 50,000 flights each year. Flights to Europe have also more than doubled with nearly 28,000 in 2012 although the region’s share of flights from DXB has remained relatively static at 20%. Other regions have recorded strong growth, in particular to North America, where flights have increased from three per week in 2003 to 10 per day in 2012.

The largest country market from DXB by seat capacity is India, with 6.2 million seats in 2012. Seats to India have grown on average by 13% each year for the last 10 years, tripling capacity from DXB. Saudi Arabia is the second largest country market, with 3.7 million seats and an average annual growth rate of 20% each year since 2003. However, six of the top 10 destinations by seat capacity are in the Middle East. Doha is the biggest by both frequency and seat capacity, with 1.8 million annual seats – the equivalent of 25 daily departures in 2012 – from seven per day 10 years ago.

Emirates operate services to 112 of the airport’s 205 destinations and 59% of the airport’s departing seat capacity. This has increased from 51% in 2003, and the range of destinations has more than doubled from the 55 destinations operated to in 2003. Emirates have added an average of six new destinations each year for the last 10 years, with the exception of the last 12 months where they have added services to 14 new destinations in every main region of the world. This pattern is consistent with their network development approach, with Europe having seen the greatest number of new services in the last five years.

Since their launch in 2009, flydubai have grown to become the second biggest operator at DXB. They serve 52 destinations across the Middle East, south eastern Europe, Russia, north east Africa and South Asia. flydubai operated 20,000 flights and 3.8 million seats in the 12 months to August 2012. The low-cost carrier’s largest route by seat capacity is Doha, with 560,000 seats representing 13% of the carriers’ route network from Dubai. In 2012, flydubai launched services to nine new destinations across the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The last 10 years in the UAE’s aviation market has seen significant expansion of both main airports’ networks and the establishment and rapid growth of strong and profitable home carriers. Both airports are growing apace and continuing to build airfield and terminal facilities to meet demand. Whilst these airports will continue to face competition from other Middle Eastern hubs, for now, their future looks secure.

About the author


Editor in chief for eTurboNew is Linda Hohnholz. She is based in the eTN HQ in Honolulu, Hawaii.