Dubai is a major aviation hub which has grown impressively over the past 30 years thanks to the homegrown Emirates and its hub-and-spoke network linking East and West.
Dubai International Airport has become a hugely busy and expansive airport with modern terminals and a steady throng of aircraft movements. It’s crazy to think it started as a tiny backwater in the desert which did not see many airlines or aircraft.
The plan is to close down Dubai International eventually, moving everything to the new Dubai World Central / Al Maktoum airport, which has plans to become the world’s biggest. At the moment it only handles some cargo, leisure and low-cost airlines, and there’s no definite timeline for the closure of the current airport.
The realities of the Covid-19 pandemic has also caused global air travel to decline significantly, possibly delaying any definitive decision on a transition to the new airport.
Main Airlines at Dubai
Dubai is a major airline hub which is served by many airlines. It is one of the busiest airports in the world.
The main airlines based here include:
- FedEx Express
You’ll also find plenty of international carriers from all corners of the globe, with a particular emphasis on those from Europe and the Middle East.
Spotters may also find the number of carriers from Africa of interest, as well as those from neighbouring Iran and Saudi Arabia which are rarely seen elsewhere.
Dubai International has a pair of parallel runways, 12L/30R and 12R/30L.
There are three terminals – Terminal 1 on the south/west side with concourses C and D. Emirates and most of the main airlines at Dubai use this terminal.
Terminal 2 is on the north/east side of the site and is home to flydubai and many Middle Eastern, low-cost and charter airlines.
There is also an executive terminal next to Terminal 2.
Terminal 3 is alongside Terminal 1 and uses concourses A, B and C. It is home to Emirates and Qantas.
Dubai Airport Plane Spotting Locations
Spotting at Dubai has always been fairly difficult due to the lack of specific locations around the airport and perimeter, and the general security presence which exists at Middle East airports. Anyone caught waving cameras and binoculars at aircraft will likely be asked to stop or taken for questioning.
Therefore, when plane spotting in Dubai it is best to be discrete and use the safety of a hotel with views. You can also spot discretely from certain airside areas within the terminals.
Premier Inn Dubai Airport
This fairly new hotel is situated just behind Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport. It has some rooms with views of the aircraft, and most useful is the rooftop terrace where you can enjoy a swim, food and drink, and views of the aircraft. There are some obstacles which get in the way of photography, and the runways are quite distant. But you’ll see all movements.
Hilton Garden Inn
Located in the Deira district a mile or so from Terminal 1, the Hilton Garden Inn is a great spotting hotel in a similar place to the old Sheraton Deira, which was famous for spotting. It has similar views of aircraft on approach to the 12L/R runways, but slightly more to the side which makes photography easier (with a 300mm lens).
There is a rooftop pool area, and rooms facing north will have a similar view. Aim for rooms 501-503, 601-603 or 701-703.
Nojoum Hotel Apartments
The Nojoum has rooms facing the approach to the airport at a more side-on angle, similar to the Hilton Garden Inn. If you ask for a room on at least the fifth floor you’ll get the best views.
Rooms have balconies, which are useful for private spotting without worrying about equipment. The hotel also has a rooftop pool area which can be used for spotting.
Another possibility for spotting is from the airside areas in the terminals, which in most cases have large windows overlooking the gates and stands.
However, please be aware that taking pictures, videos or using binoculars is likely to quickly attract the attention of security and you may be questioned (or worse), so do this with discretion.
Other Dubai Plane Spotting Attractions
There are various other aviation attractions near Dubai which you may wish to see when in the area.
Jebel Ali Seaplane Base
Located to the Palm Jebel Ali, this seaplane base is home to Seawings, which operates a fleet of amphibious aircraft on sightseeing tours around the area.
You can watch movements from the base, or the neighbouring Jebel Ali beach.
A short drive from Dubai is Sharjah, which has its own airport used by various airlines. Traditionally this was a place to see older airliners from across the Middle East and Africa, as well as cargo aircraft. These have diminished somewhat, and the airport is now a hub for AirArabia and has other passenger flights.
You can view movements from the Sharjah National Park, alongside the main road as it passes close to the end of runway 30.
Also in Sharjah is the Al Mahatta Museum (see https://sharjahevents.ae/en/sharjah-museums/) in the city centre. It is the site of the original airport and has a number of preserved aircraft on display.
Dubai World Central / Al Maktoum
This is a growing hub, but still relatively quiet. You’ll find it around 45km from Dubai. It is used for the Dubai Air Show every second year, and Emirates has been using it as a place to store aircraft during the Covid pandemic.
Spotting is quite difficult, with the large cargo aprons spread far apart and a long distance from the small (at present) passenger terminal. If you have a car, you can explore the roads leading to the different areas, but must not stop and draw attention to yourself. With expansion happening at a steady pace, the situation will change a lot over the coming years.
The main draw of Dubai for aviation enthusiasts is the sunshine and quality of aircraft traffic, but it is notoriously difficult to spot from.
If you have any tips on plane spotting in Dubai, please leave a comment below!
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