Most of the major airports in the GCC are reporting increases of between 10-20 per cent in year-to-date passenger numbers. Official traffic figures for August reveal increases of approximately 20 per cent in passenger numbers, compared to the same month last year. The rising passenger numbers provide further evidence of the GCC becoming a hub for international long-haul travel.

The data also reflects efforts by GCC-based airlines to expand their international networks through creating new partnerships. Increasing passenger demand for seats will further fuel the need for investment in airport expansion.

The Middle East region is now the fastest-growing market for scheduled flight capacity, averaging an annual increase of 9 per cent in flights over the last 10 years, according to UK-based aviation analysts at OAG Aviation.

Dubai International airport has become the world’s second biggest airport in terms of seat capacity, with over 750,000 weekly seats, the OAG report states. Passenger traffic at the airport exceeded the 4.5 million mark for the seventh time this year, according the airport’s operator, Dubai Airports. It marked a 20 per cent increase on the same month in 2011 and a 13.4 per cent rise year-to-date compared to 2011 data.

Abu Dhabi International airport has also seen a surge in passenger numbers. August saw a growth of 20 per cent compared to August 2011 with 1.3 million passengers passing through the airport.  The airport saw year-to-date growth of 21.5 per cent, making Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC) one of the fastest growing airport operators in the region.

Oman’s Muscat International airport reported an increase of 20 per cent in passenger numbers for the first six months of 2012 compared to the same period last year, hitting 3,749,000 passengers.

The smaller GCC airports have also seen an increase in passenger numbers. Rak airport in the UAE saw a 67.2 per cent increase in passenger numbers for the first half of 2012. Sharjah airport saw an 18 per cent rise in passenger numbers in August compared to the same month in 2011, although its overall year-to-date passenger numbers are slightly lower than those recorded in 2011.

The smaller airports are benefiting, in part, from the growth in low-cost airlines within the GCC. Sharjah airport is the home base for Air Arabia, which since its launch in 2003 and its initial network of six destinations, now operates a network of 103 destinations worldwide.

GCC airports are only set to get busier, as the region’s carriers expand their destination networks. Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways has announced a number of codesharing agreements including recent agreements with Saudi’s airline Nasair, Air France-KLM and RAK Airways.

Qatar Airways’ decision to join the Oneworld alliance will help further boost passenger numbers expected to pass through the New Doha International airport, due to open in 2013. The new airport will have the capacity to handle 50 million passengers a year.

Qatar Airways is the first Gulf airline to join the alliance, which illustrates the growing trend among GCC airlines to sign up to strategic partnerships to ensure they remain competitive.

“The question is around how are they [Middle East carriers] are going to manage to operate in the future. What is their long-term viability when they are all situated so close together,” comments Rob Shaw, director of analytics at OAG.

“Qatar Airways is making its first move to join a big alliance to bolster up and support its network globally. Further down the line, it [the carrier market] is going to move into mergers and acquisitions across the Middle East region as capacity starts to grow.”