Dubai's airport is challenging Heathrow's dominance - it's time for UK to embrace future

Dubai International airport has carried more international passengers than Heathrow for the last three months in a row
  • @Simon_Kelner

The news that Heathrow's position in the league table of airport dominance is under threat from Dubai, is, to the civilian traveller, rather misleading.

According to the latest statistics, Dubai International airport has carried more international passengers than Heathrow for the last three months in a row. But most of us judge an airport by the services it offers and the ease with which we pass through it. We care only about its facilities and its efficiency, not the total number of passengers it serves over the course of a year. This figure, however, is the only metric that matters when it comes to aviation politics.

Ever since passenger flight was invented, Britain has ruled the airways. Heathrow has always been one of the world's busiest airports, but yesterday, figures for the last three months revealed that Dubai could outstrip Heathrow's passenger numbers by the end of the year. Last year, Heathrow carried 72.3 million, against 66.4 million from the Middle East airport; this year, the figures could be reversed, with 125 airlines now flying from Dubai, compared with just 84 from Heathrow.

This has been seized upon as a milestone moment by those campaigning for a third runway at Heathrow, as evidence that Britain's indecision on this highly controversial matter will cause economic harm to the country. “We have squandered our No 1 world ranking through a total lack of political vision,” said Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways' parent company, IAG, who has been predicting the dominance of the emirate's hub airport since 2012. “This country has no aviation policy.”

The truth is that Heathrow hasn't been the busiest airport in the world for a decade (it currently sits at No 3 in the league table) and the British Government is still in the process of even formulating a viable aviation policy. And we are even farther still away from having a government – of any stamp – with enough political capital to spend on such a contentious and divisive area. Mr Walsh has said that he doesn't believe a British government will ever agree to a third runway at Heathrow, saying that a cocktail of Nimbyism and environmental activism is too explosive for politicians worried about their electoral prospects.

He may well be right, but it exposes an interesting fault line. The business case, it seems to me, is a pretty sound one. The bigger the airport, the greater the number of passengers, the more the economic benefit to Britain. The idea that politicians would side with the concerns of individuals rather than the imperatives of big business would make this a highly unusual set of circumstances in Westminster.

A commission led by the renowned economist Sir Howard Davies was established in 2012 to investigate options for airport expansion in Britain. It is now hard at work, and its timetable is suitably convenient for its Westminster bosses. It is scheduled to make its recommendations shortly after the 2015 election.

Whatever happens, we may be fighting a losing battle, against Dubai at any rate. I have just returned from this economic hothouse, where skyscrapers spring up almost before your eyes, and where they have the money, the human resources and, particularly, the space, to make anything possible. No wonder Dubai airport has processed more passengers than Heathrow in the last few months: it is almost three times the size. If Heathrow occupied the same area, you'd almost be boarding a plane in Hammersmith.

In some ways, it is astonishing that London has held on at the top of the airport rankings for so long, given the pace of growth in other parts of the world. So maybe we should focus on quality of experience. Heathrow Terminal 5 is one of the wonders of the world, but that's because it serves its public exceedingly well. For us mere passengers on the moving walkway of life, bigger doesn't necessarily mean better.