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 real key to the airlines’ incredible growth is geography. Their hubs in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are an eight-hour flight away 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. Gulf carriers hold one-third of the orders for the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380 — two of the world’s largest and farthest-flying jets. That’s enough planes to put 70,000 passengers in the air at any given moment.
Modern day air routes can be traced to the post-World War II era. The Gulf carriers are trying to change that.
Their hubs are in warm climates with little air-travel congestion and cheap, non-union workers. That means runways never shut down because of snow, planes don’t circle waiting for their turn to land and flights aren’t canceled by labor strikes as they often are in Europe.
On some Emirates planes, first-class passengers get private suites with doors, a 23-inch television, minibar and a phone to call flight attendants. If that’s not enough, a “Do Not Disturb” sign can be switched on.
There are spa-like restrooms with heated floors and a shower. The hub system the airlines are developing is similar to what U.S. airlines did a generation ago, which allowed passengers to fly from, say, Knoxville, Tenn. to Sacramento, Calif., with just one connection.
“Forget Mumbai and New Delhi. There’s another 40 secondary cities in India that I can take advantage of,” says Etihad CEO James Hogan.
The three Gulf airlines already fly to Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., and are adding flights at breakneck pace. The airlines aren’t just dipping their toes into these markets; they are diving in, in some cases with giant double-deck Airbus A380s that can seat 489 passengers.