Dubai Airport boss warns of 'tough' times ahead as passenger numbers drop 70 percent

Unlike many other countries, Dubai doesn't have a domestic network to fall back on.
Unlike many other countries, Dubai doesn't have a domestic network to fall back on. Photo credit: Getty

Dubai Airports' chief executive warned on Monday it would be another tough year for the Middle East's busiest hub, Dubai International, after passenger numbers slid 70 percent in 2020.

The airport, the base for airline Emirates and a major source of income for Dubai, handled 25.9 million passengers last year, mostly in the first quarter before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

"We are planning for it to be a tough year. That's undoubtedly the case, anyone that doesn't think it's going to be a tough year has clearly not been observing what's been going on," chief executive Paul Griffiths said.

The number of flights handled in 2020 fell 51.4 percent to 183,993 while the amount of cargo dropped 23.2 percent to 1.9 million tonnes.

Aviation executives and analysts expect it will take years for the industry to recover, with international travel restrictions continuing to cripple global demand.

Griffiths, who has run state operator Dubai Airports since 2007, said he was optimistic travel demand would increase as vaccine rollouts gathered pace globally.

That could see Dubai airport handle more passengers this year than in 2020, though he cautioned it would be a "long time" before the airport returns to pre-pandemic figures. 

"Intercontinental travel will continue to be a challenge," Griffiths said.

Dubai was the world's fourth-busiest airport in 2019, according to industry group Airports Council International.

Last year's figure of 25.9 million passengers would not have qualified the airport for the top 20 airports in 2019.

Unlike many other regions, Dubai and the wider United Arab Emirates has no scheduled domestic flight network to cushion against the downturn in international travel.

London's Heathrow airport and Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, for example, handled 22.1 million and 22.3 million passengers respectively in 2020.