Chicago O’Hare International Airport recently made headlines when it overtook Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to become the world’s busiest airport in terms of overall air traffic. O’Hare saw more than 585,000 takeoffs and landings during the first eight months of 2014. Hartsfield-Jackson was close behind at 582,138.

Along with airports like London's Heathrow, Paris' Charles de Gaulle and Beijing's Capital International, these U.S. facilities are among the world’s most important travel hubs. However, plans for a new airport in the United Arab Emirates would make O’Hare and its passenger-filled peers seem tiny in comparison.

Dubai International Airport is already one of the world’s busiest hubs, handling about 50 million passengers each year. In addition to being the largest airport in the booming UAE, it is also a major layover destination for people flying between Europe, Africa and Asia.

Runway construction at Dubai World Central airport

Workers add one of five runways that will make up the new airport at Dubai World Central. (Photo: Kamal Moghrabi/Getty Images)

Despite its impressive traffic figures, Dubai International is not slated to receive any major additions. The most ambitious airport expansion project to date will take place at Dubai’s now modest secondary airport, Al Maktoum International, which is also referred to by the name of the development that will surround it: Dubai World Central.

The plans is to make Al Maktoum the world’s largest airport in terms of sheer area by 2020. It will be able to accommodate 120 million passengers per year — 30 million more than Atlanta or Chicago, both of which are operating near capacity. Plans call for eventually expanding Al Maktoum to an annual capacity of 200 million fliers if demand is high enough.

Al Maktoum airport

Today, the airport is used by only a few airlines, mainly low-cost carriers such as Kuwait’s Jazeera Airways. (Photo: Marwan Naamani/Getty Images)

Despite these lofty goals, the airport just started accepting commercial flights in 2013. Before then, it was used exclusively for cargo planes. Al Maktoum is 23 miles outside Dubai, so ground transportation infrastructure is included in the development plans.

Dubai World Central might seem like another over-the-top project — for which Dubai and Abu Dhabi frequently earn headlines. These unbelievably rich kingdoms seem obsessed with superlatives: tallest building, biggest mall, etc. Despite the initial price tag on the Dubai World Central expansion (which runs into tens of billions of U.S. dollars), the project makes more economic sense than almost any other development to date in the rapidly growing UAE.

Dubai World Central model

A scale model shows the Dubai World Central development. (Photo: Imre Solt/Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to the airport, which will be able to accommodate 100 giant Airbus A380s simultaneously, the development will have malls, residential areas, hotels, conference venues, and even a golf course and theme park. It sounds like a showstopper, but a peek at the numbers reveals the practical side of the project. Dubai officials hope the airport will provide 322,000 jobs by 2020. It's estimated that the airport could account for as much as 28 percent of Dubai’s GDP. Even without the expansion, commercial aviation is extremely important to Dubai. The industry provides more than 200,000 jobs and accounts for $22 billion in annual income. 

So, in many ways, this isn't a vanity project but a shrewd economic move that will help the emirate retain its status in a post-oil world. Dubai seems well aware of its location at the crossroads of East and West. The Dubai World Central project will make the emirate both a way station and a meeting place.

Satellite image of Dubai World Central airportDubai World Central has a distinct advantage when it comes to expansion. Situated in middle of the desert (seen in a satellite image at right), more than 20 miles from any urban areas, it can grow without constraint. There is a catch to the whole project, however. Dubai suffered a serious financial crisis in 2009. Despite being bailed out by its neighbor, Abu Dhabi, it still owes billions to creditors. The airport could become a solution for these economic woes. Or it could become part of the problem if it doesn't draw the necessary air traffic to keep the runways humming.

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Inset photo: Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology/Wikimedia Commons
Dubai reaches for world's largest airport crown
The capacity of the new development, which will include hotels and malls, should easily dwarf current global leaders Chicago and Atlanta.