The airports battling to be the world's biggest super-hub

·6 min read
T3, Dubai Airport
T3, Dubai Airport

Last week I checked in for a flight, dropped off a hold bag, cleared immigration, entered the lounge and boarded the aircraft – just by using my face. I didn't even have to show my passport at immigration or get an exit stamp. Dubai is creating the first airport where anyone can use facial recognition to leave and enter the country. Once you’ve tried it, it instantly makes other airports look medieval.

Which is the point.

Dubai’s facial recognition technology is the first bold salvo in what has been dubbed “hub wars”. As air travel resumes, it’s not only airlines but also airports that are competing furiously for traffic, notably the vast global hubs in the Gulf and the new Istanbul airport. The race is on to become the world’s “super-connector”.

Dubai, the world’s busiest international hub with 90 million passengers a year before the pandemic, is betting big on technology. My hands-free, touch-free, passport-and-boarding-pass-free experience started at Dubai Terminal 3, where Emirates has installed check-in machines that use facial recognition, rather than passports. I registered my face on the Emirates system and walked straight to the airline's new check-in machines that use facial recognition, not a passport, to verify identity.

I synced my iPhone to the machine, to avoid touching the screen for health reasons, and went through the prompts. The machine recognised me and printed out my boarding pass. I put my hold bag on the scales and the machine weighed it and printed off the tag and gave me the receipt. The machine even has a credit card reader for those who want to pay for an upgrade or excess baggage. The whole experience took less than two minutes.

Things got even better at departures immigration. Rather than using e-Gates, Emirates has built an open-ended tunnel with a camera that uses facial recognition technology to verify travellers’ identity. I walked down it and looked into the camera. It recognised me and I carried on to security. No pause. No passport check.

Emirates' check-in by facial recognition in Dubai Airport
Emirates' check-in by facial recognition in Dubai Airport

After security, I went straight up to the business class lounge and entered via the new biometric e-Gates. When it was time to board I again looked into a camera to identify myself and walked straight on to the plane. No need to show my passport or boarding pass.

Arriving passengers at Dubai have to use e-Gates instead of a tunnel, but even these work on facial recognition. No need to fumble for your passport through the jet lag. Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai Airports, says: “We want to make the experience document-less to make Dubai International the most efficient, easy and fast airport in the world.”

Griffiths, working with Sir Tim Clark, Emirates’ chief executive, is offering other lower tech – but nonetheless important – initiatives to keep his nose ahead in the great airport race. Dubai International offers free, rapid PCR tests on arrival with results in less than four hours, avoiding the need for a lengthy quarantine. Even faster free tests – results in 90 minutes – are available for departing passengers. “You won’t miss your flight if you find you suddenly need a test,” says Griffiths. It will soon trial a service to enable passengers to buy duty free when they buy their ticket a day or so before their flight and have it delivered to them on the aircraft, on arrival, or even to their hotel.

All business- and first-class passengers leaving Dubai now have an almost 100% private, socially distanced experience, from kerbside arrival in an Emirates car, to check-in at the airport’s separate premium class terminal, to lounge, to boarding. Business- and first-class travellers board direct on to the upper deck of the A380 from the lounges that themselves are one storey above the airport’s main concourse.

Emirates plane outside Dubai airport
Emirates plane outside Dubai airport

Doha’s Hamad Airport, home of Qatar Airways, is fighting back by launching a massive "air grab". Unlike most of its competitors, Qatar Airways never stopped flying last year, serving up to 100 destinations daily. It was a deliberate strategy by Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways’ chief executive, to tempt new customers who had no other choice. He’s betting that once they’ve experienced Qatar Airways and Hamad Airport, which is run by Badr Mohammed Al Meer, customers will keep coming back. “The majority of passengers since last March were abandoned by airlines that they had confidence in. We stepped in,” he says.

Qatar Airways is also introducing facial recognition at check-in, similar to that in Dubai. Al Meer is expanding the airport before next year's football World Cup, introducing an indoor tropical garden, a lounge with spas, a gym, and a business centre for all passengers, not just those travelling business class. The expansion will take Hamad's capacity to 60 million passengers.

Abu Dhabi will soon open its new $10 billion Midfield Airport, which has a unique X-shaped design that is designed to make it the easiest – and quickest – major international airport for passengers to navigate by cutting distances and, therefore, walking time to gate to the lowest for a major international airport. Etihad sees itself as more of a boutique airline in comparison with its Gulf rivals (think Virgin Atlantic to BA), so the idea is that Midfield will be more of a boutique hub. Its capacity is half that of Dubai International. Abu Dhabi also offers passengers travelling to the US the chance to clear immigration and customs in Abu Dhabi, so that they can walk straight out of the airport when they arrive in America, avoiding long queues at immigration.

Turkey recently opened an entirely new airport in Istanbul that will have the capacity to handle more than 200 million passengers once fully completed. Airport bosses and Turkish Airlines want to use its closer proximity to Europe than the Gulf hubs as an advantage. It might work, one Gulf aviation executive concedes. “With its fleet of narrow body aircraft and long-range Boeing 787 Dreamliners, Turkish has the flexibility to serve all the major hubs with higher frequency and also the secondary cities throughout Europe. It’s a terrific model, which could have a big impact.”

Istanbul's new airport - Nate Hovee/iStock Editorial
Istanbul's new airport - Nate Hovee/iStock Editorial

Heathrow’s hopes of becoming a global hub have been dashed by the failure to build a third runway. Although one has been formally approved, few airline executives think it will ever be built because of growing environmental concerns. The third runway was supposed to cater for short-haul services to feed long-haul routes. The west London airport is also years behind Dubai International and Hamad on technology. Passports are still required at almost every turn and new technology used in other large airports – which means passengers do not need to remove liquids from their hand luggage during security screening – is currently only available at Heathrow Terminal 2.

Who will win hub wars? Dubai is the front runner and likely to remain so in the Gulf since its only credible rival, Doha, is a less important leisure and business destination. Some 85 per cent of Qatar Airways’ traffic is transfer traffic, compared with 60 per cent for Emirates. But Istanbul is coming up fast on the outside. Watch this air space....

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