Airports have progressively evolved from rudimentary airstrips of yesterday through to lavish modern airports of today. But as the industry evolves from building city airports to creating airport cities, should a line be drawn under the concept of an 'aerotropolis'?
Visualise large airports, larger than the two largest on either side of the Atlantic. Now imagine the largest passenger plane ever built and the creation of mega-airline alliances.
Consider major aircraft manufacturers flush with orders of new aircraft for delivery in the next few years. These scenarios may sound unbelievable but they are in fact the reality of the air transport industry today.
Dubai World Central (DWC), the huge 140km2 urban aviation project under construction in Jebel Ali will incorporate Al Maktoum International Airport. Two huge terminals and six concourses at the airport will handle in excess of 140 million passengers annually.
When completed, the airport will be the world's biggest passenger and cargo hub.
The airport will be able to facilitate the new Airbus 380, a 525-seat double-deck aircraft, which is the largest passenger airliner in the world. The A380's cabin allows for 50% more floor space than the next largest airliner, the Boeing 747-400.
A total of 192 orders for the A380 have already been placed by the world's airlines. Fifty eight of these have been placed by Emirates Airline, five have been placed by Qatar Airways and four by Etihad Airways.
DWC creates a new benchmark in urban planning, but does it create a dangerous ethos of one-upmanship where airport planners will constantly be striving to build bigger and better facilitated airports? For Inderjit Singh, senior vice president of Dubai Aerospace Enterprise (DAE) and former director of Indira Gandhi International Airport, this is a major concern.
"You can have large airports if the demand of the traffic is just, but my concern is how large should these airports be? Should they be three times the size of Heathrow, or combine Heathrow and Chicago O'Hare, plus a little more?" asks Singh.
"You need to draw a good balance between what is happening on the ground and what is happening in the air." But will Al Maktoum International Airport achieve this balance?
Singh believes it will. "You can easily differentiate between what is happening at DWC and other airports that have grown into an ‘aerotropolis'. If you go back 50 years, Heathrow was a small airport, as was O'Hare. It has taken this amount of time to become what they are today."
"DWC's growth is planned. Facilities and supporting infrastructure has all been taken into consideration. The airport should be a good size to handle the predicted 140 million passengers, but there may not be a need for larger than this elsewhere in the world."
Looking back to Heathrow's growth however it can be argued that it is impossible to stunt airport development. After Heathrow's third terminal was built, it was presumed there was no scope for more. Then the fourth was built and the same was said.
Now the fifth terminal has been completed and there are reports of developers planning another runway. In contrast, Singh warns that Al Maktoum International should be a benchmark of airport development and nothing more.
"If Al Maktoum International works, my suggestion is that we should draw a line and say OK - this much and no more.
"No one anticipated airports as large as this and as such there should be no one-upmanship. It's fine when it comes to the world's tallest buildings such as the Burj Dubai. It will become a monument to Dubai and only affects a miniscule amount of people, but by 2027 we expect about 26 million passengers to be handled per day by the worldwide aviation industry. This accounts for 135% of the world population 20 years from now. A new facility that can cope with this has to have a different attitude from these good looking tall buildings. Let us not emulate that trend into our airports."
Singh sees no logic in bringing people airside if there is no ground support in place and the same can be argued for human capital resources. Singh served in the Airports Authority of India and was director of the capital airport, Indira Gandhi International from (date).
He admits India was taken by surprise when the rapid rate in passenger growth crippled the existing infrastructure.
"We should have looked harder into the crystal ball but of course this is very hard to do. We were very happy for seven years with a growth rate of 5% per annum, which was in line with the global average, then suddenly it went up to 24% in airports like Bangalore and Delhi and we suffered an air traffic control staffing crisis."
Fortunately, the government of the United Arab Emirates has not lost sight of potential staff shortages in the region's airports, and courses such as airport and logistics management are provided by DAE University. Singh is professor of airport development at the university.
"Staffing of Al Maktoum International will not be an issue as students will be ready to fill the vacancies in three to four years time, but as I have learned from the situation in India, it is difficult to predict the future. While we pray that the growth continues, the facilities have to match it. In aviation we used to take a time scale of 15-20 years, now I think you should have a plan for 25 years and a rolling plan of five years."
But how realistic is it to ask airport managers to constantly review plans? With such huge sums of money involved in airport development, switching strategies could send costs spiralling.
Singh is quick to clarify his viewpoint. "Of course you cannot review the entire airport plan. Today's airports are like cities and this is where the concept of an ‘aerotropolis' comes in. DWC is not just an airport, it is a city within itself and it will grow in phases. While this growth is happening you can take stock of what is needed and prioritise."
So why have airport projects of yesteryear suffered such imbalances in growth? Singh admits that on many levels different components of the industry are not working together.
"Airports, airlines and aircraft manufacturers all work towards different business models, but these should be unified."
Singh draws on the introduction of the A380 as an example. "As an airport operator I welcome large aircraft but I would worry how to efficiently manage that number of passengers. I would rather have a one deck aircraft arriving every hour as opposed to a double deck aircraft arriving every two hours, offloading its passengers in one go. An airport has to double the number of facilities in order to cope and with what gain? Large aircraft require less frequency, so essentially the purpose of them is defeated."
It is the passenger that Singh places at the heart of the aviation industry and he worries that because of new large aircraft (NLA) and the emerging airport city, passengers are beginning to lose their identity.
"Passengers should be the focus of the entire operation. They are the bread and butter of the industry. If passengers are rebuked and ignored then this is where problems occur."
"I would suggest bringing back profiling. In many countries passengers are treated as a potential security threat and this is wrong. The aviation industry often responds with knee-jerk reactions. Instead, we should adopt a very judicious approach towards things and avoid jumping to conclusions."
So if Al Maktoum International should be the pinnacle of airport development how does Singh see airport development moving forward?
"If there is a justified reason to develop bigger airports and aircraft than DWC and the A380 then so be it, but let's not just continue in this way for the sake of being labeled the biggest. Emphasis should be placed on becoming the best and there comes a point when we should start perfecting what we already have."