Behind the scenes at Dubai International Airport

Behind the scenes at Dubai International Airport

From snakes on a plane to major drug hauls, Khaleej Times takes a look at the issues the staff at one of world’s busiest airports have to tackle.

By Muaz Shabandri/staff Reporter

Published: Wed 19 Nov 2014, 11:18 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 8:47 PM

Everyday, Dubai International Airport oversees 180,000 passengers travelling to some of 260 destinations. Ranked among the world’s busiest airports, hundreds of teams work together inside the terminal — facing new challenges every passing minute.

From live snakes inside passenger bags to emergency landings, the international staff of 90,000 work tirelessly to maintain the airport. Specialised teams at the airport have to diffuse any situation swiftly, ensuring a smooth flow at this hectic hub.

Mel Sabharwal, Emirates Manager for Airport Services, is responsible for helping passengers inside the terminal. Whenever her phone rings, she knows there is a new problem.

“Hold on a second... What do you mean, live snakes?,” she asks over the phone.

To Sabharwal’s surprise, police officers detect live snakes inside the bags of a transit passenger on a flight coming from Jakarta.

“I’ve got to try and understand what’s happened here. The passenger claims the bags belong to another passenger and evidence suggests otherwise,” says Sabharwal.

During peak periods, as many as 34 planes land every hour, with each passenger adding to the pressure inside the busy airport. Sabharwal’s story is just one of the critical moments captured by filming crews working for National Geographic.

The second season of Ultimate Airports Dubai offers a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes inside the terminal. Constant setbacks such as runway repairs, smugglers carrying illegal items, and emergency maintenance test the teams to their limit.

Ed Sayer, Vice-President of Commissioning for the channel, believes the show will share incredible stories.

“There is no other airport show like this in the world. We were able to film big stories inside sensitive areas, which people would normally never get to see on television,” he says.

A team of documentary-makers from the UK filmed the episodes over a period of 100 days — shadowing custom officials, air traffic control, emergency crew and airport services.

“Everyone who lives and works in Dubai is incredibly proud of what they do. They are incredibly confident people and once you get their trust, they are willing to share stories,” added Sayer.

The new season opens with the emergency return of an A380 during a critical stage of flight. Dumping 80,000 gallons of fuel is the only way to safely land the flight experiencing a fault in one of the four engines.

“It’s quite a logistical effort to film such critical action. We had three filming teams at different locations to shoot the opening story — one with air traffic control, one with emergency services and another with maintenance crew,” explained Sayer.

Any delay can affect flights around the globe, and managers must often make hard decisions. With over 66 million passengers travelling through the airport every year, there is no scope for error.

Georg Broemmer, Vice-President of Network Control (NCC), is one of the Emirates’ employees seen in the series. He manages a fleet of 240 aircraft, as well as 55 of the biggest passenger aircraft in the world — Airbus A380.

“Our network serves Dubai as the hub which brings passengers at a specific time and connects them in the fastest possible time. We are in constant touch with airplanes wherever they are,” he says.

Broemmer must be able to make fast operational decisions. Inside the command centre, a large end-to-end display shows global weather updates, storm warnings and exact location of Emirates flights — anywhere in the world.

“Dubai is at the crossroads of flying and it is not only about flying from A to B, but connecting passengers in the shortest possible time,” he says.

Any unplanned delay at the airport can force the entire hub to reschedule flight arrivals and head into crisis mode — the worst nightmare for any flight operations team.

In other episodes, customs officers spot suspicious behaviour and bags, leading to a 24-kilogram heroin find, the airport’s biggest drug haul in ten years.

The 24-hour airport’s engineering team fixes aircraft faults on the ground and in between flights, from faulty water valves to fires on board and replacing windshields. As planes weighing more than 400 tonnes are constantly landing, the engineering team had to do a complete overhaul of both runways in 80 days, closing runways back to back for the first time ever in the world. This keeps Air Traffic Control on its toes, with as many as 39 planes taking off and landing every hour.

Ultimate Airport Dubai premieres on National Geographic HD at 9pm KSA/10pm UAE on December 11, airing every Thursday. —

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