The new Dubai airport: built small... for the future
Hassan Daoud - 23/01/2006
Hong Kong's airport was completed in 1998 and according to our guide isn't yet running at full capacity. It's an airport of the future; an airport that can expand to meet the demands of the future. The same is true of Beirut's airport: passing through its departure gates on the way to your plane you remark to each other that everything seems organized with future generations of travelers in mind. Yet in the Hong Kong airport passengers from separate flights never meet in the empty carriages of the snaking train that carries them to the baggage reclaim lounge. In Beirut the departure lounges before each gate have to wait (and it's not a quick wait) before opening their doors to the latest batch of passengers.
Dubai airport, which we wandered round for two or three hours, is the only one of this new breed of airports that runs at full capacity. In its seemingly unending passenger lounges there was not an empty seat to be seen. While some passengers sat or slept on the floor next to the seating areas, others wandered aimlessly, trying to stave of boredom as they waited to travel. They looked as if they'd been there for a long time. It was the very scene you witness in the airports of the global capitals, vast halls that gather together travelers before scattering them throughout the world. Dubai feels like it could become one of those places--if it isn't already--not like Beirut's terminals which exist solely to welcome people to Beirut itself or bid them farewell.
Dubai is something else altogether. Of the 300 or so passengers being transferred between Gates 15 and 13, no more than six were Arabs. Most of these were probably passengers from around the world, filtered out of the teeming crowds and heading first to Bangkok, and from there to Hong Kong.
Amidst the jostling masses and the roar of airplanes landing and taking off, the voice of a female announcer continually directs travelers to their gates. Hurried and precise, reeling out a stream of numbers and destinations, the voice conjured up an image of airport employees rushing to this woman's office to add another set of numbers and figures to an ever growing pile on her desk. Each announcement flew out of her mouth as if what came after it were even more urgent. As she twittered on, I was struck by just how many countries there are in the world, and that each country must have its own flight timetables. Names such as Kabul and Karachi, Bombay and Shanghai (even Brunei!) echoed from the tannoy, in addition to the standard destinations we are used to seeing on the departures and arrivals boards in Beirut.
So used are we to hearing destinations such as London and Paris in other airports that it is sometimes hard to appreciate just how ambitious these airports are. It's an ambition that aims to achieve the extraordinary, and it's one that can be clearly seen in Dubai. A Saudi I met in the airport told me that they are trying to get people to use the airport as a hub for global travel. As part of this program they offer transit passengers with two day stopovers free accommodation in Dubai's hotels. As in the case of the 300 passengers being transferred to Gate 13 they make their way to Dubai from all over the world to catch a single plane that will transport them to a common destination. Waiting to board their Boeing 707 these passengers meet and mingle in the departure lounges and duty-free shops. A friend of mine in Beirut told me to spend some time looking at what Dubai's duty-free shops have to offer, so the second I arrived I made my way to the lowest passenger lounge where the sheer quantity of goods on offer has to be seen to be believed. So much, in fact, that the displays often suffer. Beiruti and international brand neckties are piled on top of each other so thickly that it's hard to tell them apart. Handbags for men and women were packed together so tightly that in order to have a closer look at one that had caught my attention I had to tug it out of the display. The quantity and variety of goods on offer detracts from their appeal. In Beirut's airport goods are like artworks, more to be gazed at than anything else. A single handbag can have a whole shop window to itself. Things are displayed to be seen, first and foremost, and only then to be bought. What we found so astonishing was that elegance and chic display had no part to play in Dubai's duty-free zone. There, customers do not waste their time drifting and gawping at the displays, but take what they want and buy it. In other words, Dubai's airport is a working market; it is alive.
Its Beiruti counterpart, on the other hand, seems frozen in a state of permanent anticipation. The airport itself, the pretty young girls in their elegant uniforms, the haughty perfume saleswomen, and the little antique shops by the departure gates are all perfectly turned out and waiting for something to happen. But despite the end of the war, something has gone wrong, and prevented it from happening. Beauty and elegance stands waiting for its admirers. The beautiful, and beautifully dressed, young women in Beirut's airport look like they have been placed there for display, not for work. And why? Because their airport is running at half-throttle and stasis and emptiness are necessary ingredients of elegance.
In Dubai, we looked not at the salesgirls, but at the goods themselves. The pressing crowds gave them no chance to relax or turn their backs on their work. Like the airport, they were running on full throttle. Unlike many airports, Dubai was this active from the moment it opened. A friend of mine who lives in Dubai told me that they are working to expand the airport so that it can receive some 7 million visitors per year. I recalled that it was announced that Beirut airport "dreamed" of, maybe (one day), taking 6 million visitors. Then I thought how a country with a population of less than a million was going to build an airport for 7 million passengers. It's one way of passing the time! Hassan Daoud