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Massive Dubai airport may delay opening again

Dubai's airport chief said Monday a new airport envisioned as the world's biggest passenger and freight hub could see its first flight pushed back further than planned.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dubai's airport chief said Monday a new airport envisioned as the world's biggest passenger and freight hub could see its first flight pushed back further than planned.

In addition, Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths said the number of runways at the colossal Al Maktoum International Airport has been scaled back to five from the six slated originally.

The new $33 billion facility and surrounding multi-use development, being built in the desert outskirts of Dubai, now isn't expected to see action until at least June 2010, a year later than a previously planned inauguration, Griffiths said in an interview. Even that date is up in the air.

"The question we're now asking is: 'When is the right time to open the new airport?'" Griffiths said from his office overlooking one of Dubai's existing airport arrival halls. "Rather than rush the opening ... we would rather take a longer time, get it absolutely right."

He says officials will review Al Maktoum's opening date in the coming weeks.

The adjustments highlight the flexible approach Dubai aviation officials are taking to cope with the economic downturn, which is killing demand for air travel and crimping global air freight flows.

But they also raise new questions about the heavily indebted Arab boomtown's ambitious airport growth plans. Griffiths' comments come days after a construction contract was withdrawn for expansion work at the existing Dubai International Airport.

Tens of billions of dollars' worth of other Dubai building projects, mostly high-rise condominiums and luxury hotels, have been shelved or canceled altogether as a result of the economic slump.

Al Maktoum International, named after the family that has ruled Dubai for generations, is expected to be the centerpiece of a 140-square kilometer (54-square mile) development combining logistics, housing, shopping and leisure facilities.

The airport itself is designed to handle as many as 160 million passengers and 12 million to 14 million tons of freight each year, potentially making it the world's biggest in terms of passenger and cargo volume.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport holds the title of world's busiest passenger airport. Memphis International Airport, used as a hub for shipping giant FedEx Corp., ranks as the world's biggest freight airport.

Griffiths said efficient use of the airport should mean the decision to drop one runway from the design will not affect capacity. It will certainly reduce the price tag, however: the only runway built so far cost 1 billion dirhams ($272.5 million) to complete.

The airport is being constructed about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from downtown Dubai International, which is hemmed in by housing, offices and car dealerships. Dubai's state-run airline Emirates is rapidly expanding its fleet, which will likely put further pressure on the existing airport's space.

Griffiths said the lack of space at Dubai International, which would remain in use once Al Maktoum International opens, means that the new airport is still necessary.

Dubai airport last year handled 37.4 million passengers — well below maximum capacity — but resources could soon become strained at busy times when both passengers and airlines want to fly most, Griffiths said.

Passenger numbers rose 2 percent to 9.5 million in the first quarter of this year.

Dubai International opened a new terminal last October that doubled its capacity to 60 million passengers a year.

Another concourse planned to open in 2011 will increase capacity there to 75 million passengers. Griffiths insisted work on that project remains on schedule despite the withdrawal of a key contract late last week.

Dubai aviation officials and South African construction firm Murray & Roberts Holdings Ltd., one of three companies involved in the deal, said they mutually agreed to end the contract because of an inability to agree on terms.