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

T3, Dubai Airport
Last week I checked in for a flight, dropped off a checked bag, cleared immigration, entered the lounge, and got on the plane - just with my face. I didn't even have to show my passport upon entry or get an exit stamp. Dubai is building the first airport at which anyone can leave and enter the country using facial recognition. Once you've tried it, other airports look instantly medieval.
What's the point.
Dubai's facial recognition technology is the first bold volley in the so-called “Hub Wars”. With the resumption of air travel, not only the airlines but also the airports are furiously competing for traffic, especially the giant global hubs in the Gulf and the new Istanbul Airport. The race for the world's “super connector” is on.
Dubai, the world's busiest international hub with 90 million passengers a year before the pandemic, relies heavily on technology. My hands-free, no-touch, passport-free, no-boarding experience began at Dubai Terminal 3, where Emirates has installed check-in machines that use facial recognition instead of passports. I registered my face in the Emirates system and went straight to the airline's new check-in kiosks, which use facial recognition and no passport to verify identity.
I synced my iPhone with the device to avoid touching the screen for health reasons and went through the prompts. The machine recognized me and printed out my boarding pass. I put my cargo bag on the scale and the machine weighed it, printed the label, and gave me the receipt. The machine even has a credit card reader for those looking to upgrade or pay for excess baggage. The whole experience took less than two minutes.
It got even better with the departure immigration. Instead of using e-gates, Emirates built an open tunnel with a camera that uses facial recognition technology to verify travelers' identities. I went downstairs and looked at the camera. It recognized me and I went on to safety. No break. No passport control.
Emirates facial recognition check-in at Dubai Airport
After the security check, I went straight to the Business Class Lounge and entered via the new biometric e-gates. When it was time to board, I looked into a camera again to identify myself and went straight to the plane. I don't have to show my passport or boarding pass.
Passengers arriving in Dubai have to use e-gates instead of a tunnel, but these also work with facial recognition. You don't have to fumble through jet lag for your passport. Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, says: "We want to make the experience documentless in order to make Dubai International the most efficient, easiest and fastest airport in the world."
Griffiths, who works with Emirates CEO Sir Tim Clark, offers other - but important - low-tech initiatives to help stay ahead in the big airport race. Dubai International offers free rapid PCR tests on arrival with results in less than four hours, avoiding long quarantine. Even faster free tests - results in 90 minutes - are available for departing passengers. "You won't miss your flight if you suddenly need a test," says Griffiths. It will soon be testing a service that will allow passengers to buy their ticket duty-free about the day before their flight and have it delivered to them on the plane, on arrival or even at their hotel.
All business and first class passengers leaving Dubai now have an almost 100% private, socially distant experience, from arriving at the curb in an Emirates car to checking-in in the separate premium class terminal of the Airport to the lounge and boarding. Business and first-class travelers step directly from the lounges, which are located one floor above the main hall of the airport, onto the upper deck of the A380.
Emirates plane outside Dubai Airport
Hamad Airport in Doha, home of Qatar Airways, is fighting back with a massive "air grab". Unlike most of its competitors, Qatar Airways never stopped flying in the past year and flies to up to 100 destinations a day. It was a deliberate strategy by Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, to attract new customers who had no other choice. He insists that once customers experience Qatar Airways and Hamad Airport, which is operated by Badr Mohammed Al Meer, they will keep coming back. “The majority of passengers since last March have been abandoned by airlines they trusted. We jumped in, ”he says.
Qatar Airways is also introducing facial recognition at check-in, similar to that in Dubai. Al Meer is expanding the airport ahead of the soccer World Cup next year and introducing a tropical indoor garden, a lounge with spas, a fitness studio and a business center for all passengers, not just for those traveling in business class. The expansion will increase Hamad's capacity to 60 million passengers.
Abu Dhabi will soon have its new midfield airport valued at 10 billion, the lowest for a major international airport. Etihad sees itself as more of a boutique airline compared to its golf competitors (think Virgin Atlantic for 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 traveling to the US the opportunity to complete immigration and customs clearance in Abu Dhabi so that they can exit the airport directly upon arrival in America and avoid long lines to enter.
Turkey recently opened a completely new airport in Istanbul, which when completed will have a capacity of more than 200 million passengers. Airport managers and Turkish Airlines want to use their proximity to Europe as the golf hubs as an advantage. It could work, admits a Gulf Aviation executive. “With its fleet of narrow-body aircraft and long-haul Boeing 787 Dreamliners, Turkish has the flexibility to fly to all major hubs with higher frequency and also to the suburbs across Europe. It's a great model that could have a big impact. "
Istanbul's new airport - Nate Hovee / iStock Editorial
Heathrow's hopes of becoming a global hub were dashed by the failure of building a third runway. Although one has been officially approved, few airlines believe it will ever be built due to growing environmental concerns. The third runway should serve the short-haul traffic for loading the long-haul routes. West London Airport is also years behind Dubai International and Hamad in terms of technology. Passports are still required on almost every corner and new technology, which is also used at other major airports - which means that passengers do not have to remove liquids from their hand luggage during security checks - is currently only available at Heathrow Terminal 2.
Who will win hub wars? Dubai leads and is likely to stay in the Gulf region as its only credible rival, Doha, is a less important vacation and business destination. About 85 percent of Qatar Airways' air traffic is connecting flights, compared to 60 percent for Emirates. But Istanbul is quickly emerging from the outside world. Observe this airspace ...

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