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Northern lights are starting to shine

Posted 12 November 2012 · Add Comment

The aerospace industry in the northern emirates is stepping out from being a well kept secret – and the success is starting with the airports. Alan Peaford reports.


Driving along the old coast road that stretches from Sharjah up to the soaring Musandam peninsula, whose rocky Omani outpost guards the entrance to the Arabian Gulf, motorists are momentarily stunned by one of the most unusual sights.

At a small airfield beside the road, a rusting Ilyushin 76 sits covered in dust, and acts as a billboard for the nearby Palma Beach Hotel. The aircraft – a former Russian Air Force transporter – had originally been sold to an African operator but was subsequently resold for scrap to the hotel, then flown in to the sandy Umm Al Quwain airstrip and left.

The airfield is now disused. The doors to the aeroclub sealed and on the apron another old relic wastes away in the sun and sand.

To many, this is what the northern emirates is about.

But it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Instead, the three airports – Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah – are undergoing transition and transformation to echo the investment that is going into their respective emirates.

And, as road access improves and plans are mounted for rail links, there is a general movement for people and products that suggest that a new boom is about to happen.

Of all of the airports, Sharjah is the most developed.

Indeed, the original Sharjah airport opened in 1932 for Imperial Airways as a major stopping point on the flights from Europe to Asia and was developed for use by the Royal Air Force as base until 1971, when formal ties with the UK were ended and the UAE was formed.

The runway for that old airport is now part of King Abdul Aziz Street in the city centre and the home for a splendid aviation museum.

Sharjah’s new airport continues to grow today.

On a 5,000-acre site, the airport is now one of the busiest cargo facilities in the whole of the Middle East and North Africa. It is rapidly growing its passenger traffic numbers as a direct result of the region’s first – and biggest – low-cost carrier, Air Arabia, having decided to set up its main base there.

The low-cost carrier took a 50% stake in the airport and led the development of a new 4,000sqm departure area with 42 check-in counters and an expansion of the main apron area.

Around the airport a freezone was developed, with aerospace companies from around the world taking advantage of the service and support from the emirate’s government, as well as being part of a geographic bonus that has already been so admirably promoted by the neighbours Abu Dhabi and Dubai and their respective carriers.

The open skies policy has seen more airlines – particularly cargo – develop routes with Sharjah.

By the end of September, Sharjah had seen almost 49,000 aircraft movements in the first nine months of the year and passenger numbers had hit a record of more than 5.5 million passing through. Some 332,000 tonnes of freight had been handled at the airport.

According to the chairman of the Sharjah Airport Authority, Dr Ghanem Al Hajri, price and flexibility have been key components in the success story.

“As an international airport, operating in a global market, we appreciate the need to be flexible to meet the customers’ needs. Accordingly, our price structure is highly competitive and we offer our customers tailor-made services suited to their operations,” Dr Al Hajri said.

“We operate an open skies policy and, in dealing with our customers, we follow an unrestricted and flexible style, accommodating the needs and requirements of the airlines and agents to ensure the best possible operational environment.”

The director general of Sharjah’s department of civil aviation, Abdulwahab Mohammed Al Roomi agreed: “While the airport is extremely cost-effective with a reasonable pricing policy, we always look at providing a top quality service for all users including airlines, tour operators and passengers,” he said. 

“The reputation of the airport was enhanced with the opening of Sharjah Airport International Free Zone (SAIF) in September 1995 and the open skies policy has resulted in air connections to virtually every capital city in the world.”

Just 30 minutes along the Emirates Highway, another airport is also going through a metamorphosis.

RAK Airport, at Ras Al Khaimah, has more than a million square metres of land. At the northern most point of the UAE there are plenty of attractions and the airport is now clearly out to grasp the opportunity.

“We have a plan to double the capacity of the airport over the next couple of years and the process has started,” said Mohammed Qazi, the airport’s commercial director.

With the expanding RAK Airways as the base carrier, RAK International Airport is expecting to see its annual passenger numbers pass the half million mark by the end of the year.

Qazi and airport chief executive Andrew Gower joined the airport team from posts in the UK just over a year ago.

“It feels like we have known each other for ever, although we only met when we came here,” Qazi said.

The two men have been working closely with the Ras Al Khaimah Department of Civil Aviation chairman Sheikh Salem bin Sultan Al Qasimi.

“We are 67% ahead of where we were this time last year. The investment into the airport is in place. Work is now under way to expand the terminal to meet the immediate need. But also it is the introduction of technology that will make a difference,” Qazi said.

The airport has signed a 10-year partnership deal with ARINC that will see the introduction of common use terminal equipment (CUTE) check-in kiosks, an airport operation database (AODB) and the Arinc multichannel system that will allow passengers to check in from their hotels (see story Page 119). 

The last of these is a clear ground-breaker for RAK, as it will be the first user of the technology outside the USA.

“This would be difficult to implement in a lot of places but it is where the uniqueness of RAK kicks in,” said Qazi.

“It is a very cohesive emirate and so, over the last ten months, Andy and I have developed relationships across various government entities. At the heart of this is the Tourism and Investment Authority, which has led the government investment in hotels, either outright or in partnership. We know the systems will be introduced because of the government ownership that makes it easier. It shows how RAK wants to be positioned as a user of advanced technology.”

This will mean that passenger movement through the airport will become easier as they just use bag drop services.

A second phase of the development – slated for next year – will see a new VIP terminal being built at the southern point of the airport and the existing VIP terminal demolished to allow for an expansion of the departures terminal and a new structure roof to cover both the existing terminals and the new extension.

“We are looking at a three million capacity within five years,” Qazi said, “but with the possibility of extended sausage style, in the way Dubai has, we could take that up to five million.”

RAK has no aspirations to follow Dubai and become an international hub.

“We see the need to increase our position as a part of a network and hope we will see more transit passengers, but we are different to Dubai,” said Qazi.

The clearer airspace is one obvious advantage.

“We are talking to airlines about RAK as a destination. We are targeting those people who come to RAK but fly in to Dubai. Why do that? We reckon that could be 400,000 passengers,” Qazi estimated.

Russian and other Eastern European carriers are on Qazi’s target list, as are German and even UK charter businesses. “There is also room for more scheduled carriers. We don’t have the airspace restrictions that are affecting Sharjah, Dubai, DWC and Abu Dhabi, so there is a lot going for us here.”

As part of phase one of the new development, RAK is also building a new fuel farm and will be announcing a second fuel supplier to join ARAMCO on the field.

“At the moment fuel has been limited because of storage space,” Qazi said. “It has led to a great number of trucks on the road having to ferry in fuel. The new investment will lead to greater storage and make it easier.”

The airport has also signed a new deal with Rakabela to develop an extended catering provision.

“Partnerships are important to us,” Qazi said. “We are signing long-term arrangements. Working together will make the project succeed.”

Qazi said the airport is offering generous commercial packages in the form of cash injections for marketing support for airlines using the airport.

“These packages are unknown in the market and so are very different,” he said. “One operator making tech stops in other parts of Middle East saw what we were doing and described our approach as ‘refreshing’. We know we have to work in partnership with the airlines and deliver a mutually beneficial result.”

The airport has also begun to focus on its cargo activities.

“We are working now to have a bonded cargo warehouse at the airport and this will be achieved by the year end. We are working with National Air Services (NAS) of Kuwait, and we are looking to replicate what they have in Kuwait. It is an important area.”

Across the Hajja Mountains – where Jebel Jais is the highest point in the UAE at 5,700 feet – lies Fujairah, where cargo is also a key subject.

Fujairah Airport is in the centre of the city. With an approach out over the Indian Ocean, Fujairah is the eastern most point of the UAE, and for several years has been cited as being the next big thing.

The airport has a fantastic terminal and the capability of handling up to two million passengers a year. But for now it is handling a fraction of that.

Reports suggest that the past 12 months have been the worst year for passenger numbers, due to an absence of European charter flights as the world economy hit the leisure business.

According to acting general manager Charles Hajdu, numbers are beginning to pick up.

The airport’s business aviation terminal has been taken over by Swiss firm Aurora, a deal for an MRO business to move into the new hangar is close and the trade licence for Falcon Airside is imminent.

The UK company owns Falcon Aircraft Recycling and had been looking for an ideal site on which to establish a recycling facility. At the MRO show in Dubai in February a contract was signed with Fujairah.

“We will be providing a safe and efficient recycling facility at Fujairah,” CEO Ian French said. “As well as protecting the environment, we will be providing a cost-effective solution for airline owners to dispose of their ageing and redundant aircraft.

“Recycling engines and other aircraft components safely in a highly regulated and technical market is what we are equipped and set up to do. It has been our ambition for some time and Fujairah provides the perfect location with space, skilled staff and facilities such as workshops and storage facilities within the airport as well as smelters, a sea port and good road access to the rest of the UAE.”

It is these factors, along with a wave of fresh investment into the emirate, that Hajdu believes will provide a lift for both the airport and the emirate.

Billions of dollars are being pumped into Fujairah’s oil, gas and shipping industries as the country’s eastern seaboard assumes an increasingly strategic role.

A new overland pipeline from Abu Dhabi will allow crude oil to bypass the Strait of Hormuz through Fujairah and the expansion of the Port of Fujairah will see larger ships coming in. Shopping malls are springing up in the town centre and a new motorway has cut 45 minutes from the journey time to Dubai.

“You can sense the movement,” Hajdu said. “We now have RotanaJet offering domestic services to Abu Dhabi; we think cargo numbers will increase and as more hotels are built there will be more passengers.”

For the northern emirates, life in the fast lane is just beginning.



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