Is Singapore’s Changi clawing back some of its lost advantage over Dubai International?

In the latter decades of the 1900s if you were travelling between Europe and Southeast Asia or Australasia you would probably use one of the long-established European hubs (London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt etc) or Singapore to make any necessary transfer. But then Dubai Airport, which until 1963 had only a compacted sand runway, began to get much more aggressive from the 1980s, the government having observed how it was better located globally and how a similarly sized and populated city/state could be developed like Singapore, as a centre for trade and tourism.


  • As Dubai International airport sees it first downturn in passenger numbers Changi airport may be better positioned for the future;
  • Singapore’s gateway once dominated Southeast Asia – European passenger flows but was badly impacted by Dubai’s phenomenal expansion;
  • It has other, more local competition as well but the tide may be turning in its favour.

Until quite recently Dubai has been the ‘winner’ in the tug-of-war for this particular traffic flow. Looking at the broader picture, passenger traffic there increased from 18 million to 83.5 million between 2003 and 2016, it became the world’s third-busiest airport and the busiest international one, overtaking London Heathrow. Much of that international traffic is conveyed on a huge fleet of interconnecting Emirates Airline Airbus A380s, through a common terminal.

But in the last couple of years things have started to go a little awry in Dubai. Traffic has stalled and even went into decline in the first quarter of 2019 (-2.2%). That is partly down to increased competition to its transfer traffic from other UAE carriers and from Turkish Airlines at the new Istanbul airport. There has also been more aggressive airline/airport combinations in places like Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman, some of which are now doing to Dubai what Dubai did to the European airports in previous decades. There is also competition from other tourist destinations.

CHART – Dubai International airport has seen year-on-year passenger growth rates slip from the middle of the decade, falling into negative territory for the year to dateSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and Dubai International airport reports

There are other reasons, too. Conflicting military flight zones impact on civilian movements in and around Dubai and a recent second and lengthy closure of one of the two runways for maintenance didn’t help. The future for the other Dubai airport, Al-Maktoum, doesn’t look rosy and its expansion has been placed on hold.

Dubai International was one of two airports that could have overhauled Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International as the world’s busiest but it looks as if only Beijing Capital International, which handled over 100 million passengers in 2018, can now do that, albeit the opening of a second airport in the Chinese capital could delay this.

The picture at Singapore Changi is rosier. Having dispensed with wild 2000s ideas such as the ‘Budget Terminal’ it now has four full-size, modern ones, connected by a recently-opened multi-use facility, Jewel Changi, and a fifth terminal to handle 50 million ppa (as opposed to a separate airport that might not even get on the Metro line, as at Dubai), is planned for the 2030s, when needed. It has three long runways, rather than two.

As of 01-May-2019, more than 100 airlines operated at the airport, connecting Singapore to 400 cities in around 100 countries and territories worldwide. Changi is not as dependent on one or two home-based airlines as is Dubai International, and where the mainstay of operations is the A380, an aircraft whose manufacture is to be discontinued (and of which some of the first to enter service just 12 years ago – ironically flown by Singapore Airlines – are being broken up).

CHART – Singapore Changi is not as dependent on one or two home-based airlines and has seen strong and relatively stable growth through the current decadeSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and Changi Airport Group

As a result of these factors Changi’s passenger growth chart presents a healthier outlook. Changi’s route map shows it still very much at the centre of Southeast Asia – Europe traffic flows (and in many cases North Asia, too). Dubai International’s more comprehensive route map shows an orientation in favour of the Middle East and Indian sub-continent.

None of this means that Changi is going to reassume pre-eminence over Dubai International or that the latter is going to decline significantly in global importance. Furthermore, Changi itself faces growing competition from its peers in Southeast Asia such as Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi, Kuala Lumpur International and the biggest of all, Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta, airports. But it does suggest that the balance might be drifting back in its favour.

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