In the Middle of it all: An aerial view of Middle Eastern airports

For International Airport Review’s Middle Eastern spotlight issue, Stefano Baronci, Director General of Airports Council International (ACI) Asia-Pacific, gives an overview of the airports in this region.

Favourably positioned at the strategic crossroads of major economies — Asia, Africa, and Europe — airports of the Middle East have transformed into major international hubs, supporting the fast‑growing aviation industry in the region.

Through facilitating long-haul flights and serving as a link between continents, and connecting countries of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as some neighbours, the Middle East aviation industry has been at the forefront of the region’s growth story.

With over 110 airports, the Middle East is already one of the globe’s main transport capitals and is one among the fastest growing in the world, accounting for four per cent (170 million) of the global traffic (4.6 billion) in 2021. Due to its strategic location, Middle East carriers can connect to any continent in the world — from the well-established international hubs of Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, aircraft can reach almost all of Asia, Africa, Europe within a flying range of eight hours.

Traditionally, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt once dominated as transit points for passengers travelling between European and Asian countries. With the emergence of Middle Eastern airports, in the last two decades, these cities became popular transit hubs for travellers. This gives passengers the ability to relax, stretch and get some refreshments before continuing their journey to their final destination. As a hotspot for connecting flights, Middle Eastern airports have witnessed consistent growth in passenger traffic and air cargo over the last two decades.

So, what led to this transformation? It’s the superior connectivity to key destinations across the world, reduced travel time and lower airfares coupled with high quality of service and superior in-terminal commercial offerings making the Middle East the new crossroads of global travel. The transformation is also driven by both the airports and airlines, all backed by respective governments, that believe aviation is the key driver to make their countries bigger players in the global economy. Constructive relationships and pragmatic co-operation between the key aviation stakeholders, including airport operators, airlines, ground handling companies and other important concessionaires resulted in a robust and resilient growth of the entire aviation ecosystem in the region.

Powering the global economy

Airports and the aviation sector serve as economic engines. In 2019, the aviation sector generated $3.5 trillion in economic activity, representing 4.5 per cent of global GDP. During pre-COVID, the industry in the Middle East generated $213 billion in revenues, accounting for six per cent global economic activity. The sector generated over three million jobs until 2019.

Heavily dependent on international traffic, the growth of the region witnessed a significant slowdown since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Middle East airports, which served 405 million passengers in 2019, remained the most impacted region in 2021, despite some improvement in the second half of year, reaching only 42 per cent of its 2019 level by year end. This was mainly due to its dominant dependence on international traffic that was heavily impacted by the border restrictions imposed by many States worldwide. In 2022, the region is expected to reach 67 per cent of 2019 levels by year end and fully recover only in late 2024.

Nevertheless, there has been a considerable improvement in traffic in the first four months of 2022 (from January to April) with the region recording 66 per cent traffic as compared to the same period in 2019. Cargo throughput too remains positive in the first four months of the 2022, achieving 86 per cent as compared to same period in 2019.

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