In an apparent criticism of the British government's airport expansion policies, Willie Walsh, head of International Airlines Group, the parent of British Airways and Iberia, warned that Heathrow will be overtaken by Dubai as the world's biggest international airport "within two to three years".
Walsh pointed out that in 2001 Dubai barely made it to the Top 100 airports worldwide, ranking as the 99th biggest international airport in the world. By 2010, it was in 13th position and by 2011 it was fourth, he said.
He said Dubai would overtake Heathrow as the world's biggest international airport "within two to three years" while speaking to the House of Commons Transport Committee.
According to a recent report by Centre for Aviation (Capa), the UAE has experienced a decade of relentless aviation growth.
"Separated by less than 120km, the three largest airports in the country at Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah have seen their traffic driven by their home carriers, Emirates, flydubai, Etihad and Air Arabia, each of which handles the majority of passengers passing through the airports," said a Capa report published in November.
"This year  could see the three airports reach a combined 80 million passenger throughput. With each achieving double-digit growth, a combination of large order books for the local airlines and an increasing fleet of foreign carriers attracted to the market, the UAE airports are fast approaching the total airport traffic of New York City's system, stagnating at a little above 100 million passengers annually," the Capa report highlighted.
Capa said the expected 80 million passengers in 2012 will be four times the amount of traffic the UAE's airports handled in 2002 and double the amount they handled in 2006. "The largest of course is Dubai, Emirates' hub, but both Abu Dhabi and Sharjah and are growing fast, off smaller bases," it noted.
According to the report, the UAE is creating the world's premier air transport network, while traditional hubs are starved of new capacity. "With passenger operations at the immense Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai set to commence from the second half of 2013, the scale of the UAE's airport network will be eclipsed only by cities that have historically been at the heart of international air transport," it noted.
"London still plays home to the world's busiest air transport system, yet the UAE's airports are rapidly catching up. Passenger flows in the UAE doubled over the past five years and are forecast to double again by 2020, reaching more than 150 million per annum."
According to Capa statistics, " Dubai International Airport "aims to eclipse London Heathrow as the world's single largest airport for international passenger traffic by 2020". The agency adds that "[t]his is a target that even London Heathrow operator BAA admits is likely, given that the airport is already operating in excess of 99 per cent of runway capacity."
Walsh's latest comments, however, suggest that Dubai will overtake Heathrow sooner than anticipated. Capa maintains that Dubai expects to handle almost 100 million international passengers per annum by 2020, and has forecast an average annual growth rate for passenger traffic of 7.2 per cent.