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I notice that the Dubai International Airport is the 3rd busiest airport in the world (after Atlanta and Beijing) on the Wikipedia's list of the world's busiest airports.

That seems kind of strange to me since the United Arab Emirates is a relatively small country and is far away from large population centers. Why is there so much passenger traffic going through Dubai?

For example, Riyadh has more than double the population of Dubai, and Saudi Arabia has triple the population of the UAE, yet Riyadh Airport, despite being very close to Dubai, is not in even in the top 30.

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    Dubai airport is the Hub of Emirates and it focuses on transit flight. It is funny that the landside of Dubai airport t3 (For Emirates and its partner Qantas) is silent, you can count all the staffs and tourists by finger. – Him Aug 22 '15 at 13:41
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    @Him: The more interesting question might be how Emirates got to be such a large airline in a relatively short period of time — 30 years ago, the airline hadn't even made a single flight yet. – Michael Seifert Aug 22 '15 at 14:28
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    @Michael Seifert Simple because of increasing aviation market and Airline Deregulation, JetBlue and Easyjet hadn't made a single flight either 30 years ago. – Him Aug 22 '15 at 14:38
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    Not that it really matters to the question, but the list that has Dubai third is for Q1 2015, so it may or may not be affected by seasonal variation compared with the full-year lists further down the page. – Steve Jessop Aug 24 '15 at 9:56
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Geography

Dubai is located rather conveniently between several large and important geographical regions: Africa has a population of 1.1 billion, Asia has 4.4 billion, Europe 745 million. Around 70% of travellers are connecting passengers at Emirates.

map Source

Investment

As others have pointed out, Emirates have invested heavily in economies of scale, i.e. A380. They have also secured themselves front seats in several rapidly developing economical areas.

This has not gone unnoticed: Turkish Airlines has placed huge orders and is trying a similar strategy to get a piece of the pie. Istanbul has annual passenger increase figures in the 10%-20% range over the past years.

Politics

UAE has properly embraced aviation as an economic tool. They really want aviation for the passenger traffic and money it brings; it has contributed to the growth of Dubai as an economic hub. Unlike other cities where disputes about noise and pollution to get debated for years, they are in the process of building a new airport with five runways in the desert right off the drawing board. That it is in an area known 'Dubai World Central' should hint at their ambitions. The fact that the entire area is also uninhabited desert is pretty helpful.

This strategy is not unique. (Majority State-Owned) Singapore Airlines for instance is huge and helps drive their economy.

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    In other words, Dubai drowns in money, knows how to put it to profit AND is a smart geopolitical player. – Nemo Aug 23 '15 at 9:09
  • Why would passengers flying between Europe/Africa and Asia prefer to go via Dubai? Almost every port (with the exception of Australia and NZ) is within the range of typical intercontinental airliners. I'm not doubting there's an answer (clearly, they do), but your answer doesn't express this. My guess is that frequency is improved, but that's only a guess. – Hugh Aug 23 '15 at 10:00
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    @Hugh: If you have a hub roughly in the middle between two markets, you can provide connecting flights between any pair of cities in the two markets with minimal detours relative to having direct flights everywhere -- and still gain the economies of scale that flow from a hub-and-spoke network. A hub in one of the two markets can also do, but some passengers would need to fly longer detours. – Henning Makholm Aug 23 '15 at 13:18
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    @Hugh: I have flied to Korea (from Poland) last year. The Emirates flight with a connection in Dubai -- it was cheaper by about a third than the next cheapest option. I had several hours layover each way, but I got free lunch, and in-flight service (this is economy class I'm talking about) was comparable with (though not quite on par with) Lufthansa intercontinental flights. I would strongly recommend Emirates, was it nor for the severe delay on the return flight (I'm not sure if it was their fault, but I missed a connecting domestic flight). – tomasz Aug 23 '15 at 18:29
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    When a carrier undercuts other competitors by offering a lower price/ better service, customer generally flock to them. How they are able to offer these lower is what is interesting. – edocetirwi Aug 24 '15 at 17:40
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Most of the busiest airports in the world are hubs (Atlanta, Heathrow, Frankfurt, to name a few).

Emirates uses Dubai as their headquarters and is a major player in transferring traffic between Europe, Asia and Oceania.

As it's their main hub, almost every long-haul flight (plus several in the area) transition through Dubai.

As a result, lots of air/passenger traffic :D

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    Why did you added a smiley at the end of your answer? – A.L Aug 24 '15 at 12:08
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    @A.L I have no idea, frankly. Probably was in a good mood :) – Mark Mayo Aug 24 '15 at 12:25
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    I was surprised because smilies in answers are really rare, it looks childish IMO. ;-) – A.L Aug 24 '15 at 12:27
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A380 This is Airbus A380, the biggest passenger airplane on the planet.

Compare its size to the cars and trucks below the bridge. Depending on how the owner of the plane decides to configure the seats, one of these can fit up to 853 passengers, allthough most operators have settled for less.

There are quite a few airlines all around the world flying the A380, for example Air France has 10, Lufthansa has 14, British Airways has 9, Qantas 12, and so on.

Emirates, the airline based at Dubai International Airport, currently has 65(!) of them, however they have ordered a total of 140(!!). In addition to that, they also have 128 B777-s (each holds around 300 passengers), 18 A330-s (~280) and a few others.

All of these airplanes combined make for one impressive fleet, all these planes arriving and leaving constantly create lots of connections - you can get from pretty much every big city on the planet to any other big city on the planet with just a single change of plane in Dubai.

That is the reason why Dubai is so busy, most of that traffic consists of transiting passengers.

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    A couple of notes on the A380. First, although it's certified for up to 853 passengers, no airline is currently flying them with more than than 538 seats; Emirates has some on order that will be configured with 615. Of the airlines you mention, BA and Lufthansa don't fly A380s to Dubai (they use them on flights from Europe to the US and the Far East). – David Richerby Aug 22 '15 at 16:56
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    You are right of course But, I wanted to point out how huge the aircraft is and that Emirates has almost 4 times more of them, than any other single airline and even more on order. – Anti Veeranna Aug 22 '15 at 17:42
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    Yeah, the sheer number of massive wide-bodies that Emirates has or has on order is crazy. They recently placed another order for 150 additional Boeing 777s. – reirab Aug 23 '15 at 21:08
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Almost everyone addressed the fact that Dubai is a hub for Emirates (and Qantas for their Asia operations) and a large portion of this traffic is transit passengers.

Dubai itself is a large and vibrant metropolis, and that drives a lot of traffic to the area; it holds a lot of the world's first/largest/biggest - starting with Burj Khalifa and its surrounding areas (for example, Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi has the fastest roller coaster) etc. This also helps bring in traffic.

It also helps that politically Dubai and the UAE are relatively stable areas.

Dubai is a regional shopping megacity. Each year there is the Dubai Summer Surprises and the Dubai Shopping Festival; but I would like to address the other valid points in your post:

Riyadh has more than double the population of Dubai, and Saudi Arabia has triple the population of the UAE, yet Riyadh Airport, despite being very close to Dubai, is not in even in the top 30.

Specifically for Riyadh and other large airports in Saudi Arabia like Jeddah and Dammam; the reason these large airports have so few passenger numbers is because Saudi Arabia is notoriously difficult to get visas for. Compare this with Dubai that has visa on arrival, e-gate for multiple nationalities and visa applications available online, it makes it easier to stop over in the Emirate, further increasing its appeal.

There is a significant amount of local air traffic (and Saudi Arabia has private airlines as well, like Flynas) - but due to a lack of tourism initiatives and those being restricted to GCC citizens, it reduces the passenger numbers going through these areas (it does help that transit is still a no-visa required situation in Saudi Arabia, but the local incumbent has very few transit flights).

Save for religious travel, like during the annual Hajj passenger traffic is barely a blip on the radar.

In other areas in the Middle East like Bahrain (which also has very liberal visa policies), there simply isn't enough of a draw to bring in passengers. Bahrain's flag carrier Gulf Air (which used be the national airline for Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Oman) is going through an overhaul to modernize its operations, management and fleet.

Qatar however is aggressively expanding its travel capabilities with the expansion of its main airport and Qatar Airways being the first carrier to fly the 787. It is very aggressive in going after Emirates/Etihad especially on the profitable European long-haul and Asian routes - it also competes with Emirates for sponsorship deals.

Locally, you see plenty of competitive pricing between the two.

  • I don't think that Dubai as a metropolis drives a lot of traffic to the airport, since the vast majority of passengers (63%+?) are transiting, not visiting it. – smci Aug 24 '15 at 7:30
  • It does when there is a shopping festival, new year's celebrations or other major events. Plus, Dubai is a major technical hub for most large multi-nationals. Microsoft, Oracle, HP, IBM all have their EMEA operations out of Dubai. – Burhan Khalid Aug 24 '15 at 7:34
  • I was aware of that, but still the vast majority of DXB passengers are transiting. Do you know the numbers? – smci Aug 24 '15 at 7:35
  • For purposes of "busiest" the type of travel is not counted. Total passengers is 32.3 million (as of May 2015). – Burhan Khalid Aug 24 '15 at 7:53
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    FYI, Etihad also flies the 787, they have 3 at the moment (etihad.com/en-us/experience-etihad/our-fleet). – KM. Aug 24 '15 at 11:11

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