The changing geography of international air travel


Passengers wait to board an Emirates flight in Dubai. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Six months ago, a traveler flying from Washington D.C. to Mumbai would likely layover in London or Amsterdam on the way. But since Emirates Air launched nonstop service from D.C. in September, that same traveler can stop in Dubai before flying on to points east -- a small change that could actually speak to a bigger, geographical restructuring of international flight routes.

The AP recently reported that Middle Eastern airlines, like Emirates and Qatar Airways, are shifting travelers south to non-European hubs, Dubai chief among them.

Dubai's international airport now sees more passengers each year than New York's JFK, up 77 percent from five years ago. But Dubai is by no means the only non-traditional hub to see a jump. In its most recent report, Airports Council International, a global industry group, reported double-digit growth at eight of the world's 30 busiest airports  -- all but one of them in Asia.

Meanwhile, at traditional hubs like Paris, London and New York, crowds have either shrunk (London) or grown by tepid percentages (.5 percent in Paris, 1.5 percent in New York).

Those changes could eventually affect more than just the scenery long-distance travelers see on their layovers. Multiple studies have found that airports contribute significantly to economic growth, influencing everything from tourism to company location. And a 2009 paper from economists at the University of Barcelona predicted that large airports, thanks in part to new American and Asian routes, will continue "losing share" in the future.

That will actually be okay for many of the traditional hubs, that paper said -- airports in "political capitals," like London and Paris, have fared fine. But it could promise some growth for airports in non-traditional cities, like smaller European destinations that "feed" Asian and American airlines, as well as (presumably) the new Asian hubs themselves.

That certainly sounds like the hope in Qatar and Abu Dhabi, where the governments have invested heavily in new airports, AP reports. You can watch a grandiose rendering of Doha's new international airport -- price tag $15.5 billion -- below.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · March 5, 2013