Real life: busiest airports

As National Geographic channel premieres the documentary Ultimate Airport: Dubai around the world, Vision asks why behind the scenes shows such as these remain so popular

Ali is driving down the middle of one of Dubai International Airport’s runways. Distracted by the man in the passenger seat, he misses the warning from the air traffic control tower telling him that a huge passenger plane is about to cross his path. Hearts are very firmly in mouths as he motors, blissfully unaware, right towards an Airbus A340.

It sounds like a scene from a disaster movie, but this is National Geographic Channel’s new documentary series Ultimate Airport: Dubai. And, thankfully, Ali’s companion was not only listening to the warning, but is a hugely experienced driver testing his young charge on his suitability to drive “airside”. Emergency averted.

But the scene is just one of many intriguing storylines from the 10-part behind-the-scenes look at the life of the second busiest international passenger airport in the world. From unruly passengers on incoming flights to stressful runway closures, director John Smithson has seen it all.

And what immediately became apparent to Smithson was the incredibly multicultural feel to the airport, in terms of both its passengers and workforce. “It’s like a mini United Nations, a real global hub,” he says. “And that crossroads of cultures makes for some fascinating television. It was a really interesting series to work on.”

But why should the changing of a tyre on an Airbus A380 in a Dubai airport hanger be particularly interesting to viewers in, say, Australia? It’s a question one might ask of any documentary zeroing in on a specific institution anywhere in the world, be that a hospital, police station or indeed an airport. The hit UK show 24 Hours In A&E, for example, features truly nail-biting life and death situations, but has also followed the treatment of a woman who's been bitten by a cat. But it's been a huge success. It's the compelling characters in these behind-the-scenes real life dramas that capture the imagination, from a cocky young policemen arriving at his first domestic dispute to the stressed air traffic controller dealing with a backlog of flights.

“There is a golden rule in documentary-making, and it particularly applies to a place as vast as Dubai International Airport,” says Smithson. “You have to humanise it, find people who an audience can relate to and empathise with.”

That includes the passengers at Dubai themselves. We have all felt like we might miss a crucial flight. Some of us even have. So when a family break down in tears after missing their plane to India, it’s fascinating to see not just how they cope, but the airport staff too.

“And that understanding of the sheer complexity of a 24-hour airport is also what we hope people get from Ultimate Airport: Dubai,” agrees Smithson. “Next time people use one, maybe they’ll understand what it takes to make them run as smoothly as they do.”

Ultimate Airport: Dubai airs on NGC in 170 countries and 45 languages worldwide.