Passenger Focus

The success of Air Arabia and the continued growth of chartered and scheduled services is forcing Sharjah International to expand, says Dr. Ghanem Al Hajri, director general, Sharjah DCA.

  • E-Mail
By  Neil Denslow Published  August 31, 2004

|~||~||~|Sharjah International Airport has long been a hub for aviation in the Middle East, but mainly for air cargo. However, led by the success of Air Arabia, the airport is rapidly growing its passenger traffic, and it is preparing to start a major expansion program to further support this side of its business. Aviation in Sharjah began as early as 1932 when Imperial Airways, a forerunner of British Airways, constructed an airfield in the emirate to act as a stopover point en route to India and Australia. The current airport, which was opened in 1977, in many ways plays a similar role today, acting as a transit point between Europe and the Far East. “Sharjah is the ideal gateway to Arabia and the perfect economic transit point on your way to the east or west,” says Dr. Ghanem Al Hajri, director general of Sharjah’s Department of Civil Aviation & Sharjah Airport Authority (SAA). This geographical good fortune combined with the UAE’s open skies policies has enabled Sharjah to become a key hub for the air cargo industry. The airport handled 500,453 tonnes last year, which meant it was the second busiest air cargo station in the region, behind Dubai, and the 36th largest in the world. However, while air cargo remains a key business for the airport, it is now seeking to grow its passenger operations and non-aviation related revenues. Sharjah once boasted some of the largest passenger numbers in the region, but of late it has been overshadowed by other local airports, notably its neighbour in Dubai. To reverse this trend, in October of last year, the Sharjah DCA and SAA launched a low cost carrier, Air Arabia, to help grow the number of passengers using the airport. “We reached a stage where it was very difficult to grow the business further without a home airline to generate additional traffic, and to bring in other airlines seeking to benefit from the network that Air Arabia would create,” explains Dr. Al Hajri. “We are probably the only civil aviation body in the world that has launched an airline in order to generate traffic out of its airport,” he adds. Air Arabia has clearly lived up to these expectations, reporting strong passenger numbers across its network. Over the summer months, from June to mid-August, for instance, the airline carried over 200,000 passengers with average load factors of 80%. The airline now flies to a total of 13 cities in the Middle East — with Sana’a set to come online in November — as well as to Colombo. However, the growth of the carrier is being limited by the restrictive traffic rights in the region, with other countries either not allowing Air Arabia to launch services or severely limiting the frequencies it can operate. The airline had to drop Cairo from its network for this reason, and Dr. Al Hajri sees access rights as the biggest challenge facing the carrier. “Unfortunately, the majority of countries in the Middle East are still protective of their national airlines, so they are closing the door to more flights,” he says. “This does not help their own economies, and they are not really doing the best for their country in terms of overall development.” “A liberalising policy can have a major impact on the growth of the economy and on the growth of their airport, especially in transit passengers. Emirates is a great example of the success of such a policy,” he adds. “The growth of [aviation in] the UAE in general is greater than any other country in the Middle East. We have also lately seen the Lebanese liberalising their policies and we can see how much traffic has been generated by that.”||**|||~||~||~|The lack of access also extends to India, which is a key target market for the airline and the airport. Through the operations of Indian Airlines, Sharjah already touts more Indian destinations than any other Middle East airport, but so far Air Arabia has been unable to secure permission to serve the country. “We are working on it, and I think hopefully we will succeed,” says Dr. Al Hajri. “The Indian authorities know that their own public will benefit from the flights… People will visit home more and for tourism also. Air Arabia will encourage people to travel with greater frequency when they realise they are saving money,” he adds. Despite the limitations placed on Air Arabia by closed skies policies, the number of passengers passing through Sharjah Airport has greatly increased over the last two years. In 2002, the last full year before the launch of Air Arabia, the airport handled just over a million passengers. Last year, this figure grew by over 20%, partly driven by the new airline, but also by the rising traffic on other scheduled carriers and also on charter flights. This year, the strong trend has continued with passenger numbers in the first half alone topping 836,000 — up 25% on the first six months of 2003. To support these growing passenger numbers — and the demands placed on airport operations by being home to a low cost carrier — the airport has significantly strengthened its ground support operations over the last year. Fifty new ground support staff have been hired and Mubarak Fahad, formerly a British Airways station manager at a number of Gulf airports, has been appointed as director of ground services. “Air Arabia has put pressure on us to improve our services, to have more qualified and better trained staff,” says Dr. Al Hajri. “So, we have brought in new blood, especially in ground services, and that has really made a difference, as well as giving them a lot of support in terms of the technology and equipment they need.” The airport is also now set for a major refurbishment project to expand and improve the facilities on offer to passengers. The first stage of the project has already been completed, with all of the DCA’s and SAA’s personnel, aside from those involved in the daily operations of the airport, moving out of the main terminal and into a new purpose-built building next door. “Because of our plans for the airport, we had to give our old offices to our customers who need to be in the main terminal,” comments Dr. Al Hajri. The next step will be to overhaul all areas of the main passenger terminal including the departures area, arrivals hall and shopping and refreshment facilities. The final design for the project, which was drawn up by GHD, includes 21,000 m2 of renovated and refurbished areas and the addition of an extra 200,000 m2 of floor space. These extensions will be built in a low profile and wrapped around the building, thereby preserving the three existing interlinked arched domes that form the centrepiece of the terminal’s current design. The expansion work will also see the construction of six more gates, while the number of check-in counters will be increased from 26 to 40. The project also includes building an arrivals concourse, a customs area and an immigration pod, as well as the installation of an inbound baggage system. In the arrivals hall, the two current baggage conveyor belts will also be replaced with four larger carousels, which will allow the airport to handle 12 incoming flights at the same time, three times more than at present. “We have finished all the planning, we have all the tenders in hand, and we are only waiting for final government approval to proceed,” says Dr. Al Hajri. “Hopefully, by mid-October we will know exactly where we stand, but everything is ready from our side for the go-ahead from the government.” In the next few weeks, work is due to start on refurbishing the current duty free area. Once this is complete, work will move on to the expanded duty free area, which will have the same design concept. A large area for transit passengers will also be built, which will include a number of restaurants and three lounges that will be run by the airport authority. More shops will also be added in the arrivals area and in the main terminal building, which will increase the facilities on offer to passengers. This will both generate extra revenue for the airport, as well as making it more appealing to customers. “It will make it more convenient for passengers spending time in the airport,” says Dr. Al Hajri. The expanded duty free area will continue to be run by travel retailing company, Dufry, which also manages the sales onboard Air Arabia’s aircraft. This policy is unusual in the Gulf region, as most airports keep duty free sales and other airport operations in-house. However, Sharjah has outsourced a number of functions ranging from air traffic control, which Serco has run for more than 50 years, to cleaning and electronics maintenance to third parties. “We believe that the private sector is capable, very professional, and it is cheaper than doing it ourselves,” explains Dr. Al Hajri. “These are very specialised areas and we would like to concentrate on our core business and give the other aspects to professional people who know how to handle them better,” he adds. “We are now looking at outsourcing possibilities in engineering, which is mainly airport maintenance. We are drawing up the policy for this and when we are ready we will issue the tender,” he continues. The SAA has also been investigating the possibility of taking over operations at other airports. It has bid on projects in Asia and it is also talking to airports in Africa, India and Pakistan. However, these opportunities are yet to reach fruition, mainly because of unsettled government policies surrounding the issue. “Because of government changes and regulatory changes it is not yet clear whether they are going ahead with airport privatisation, although they have talked about it a lot,” says Dr. Al Hajri. As for the idea that Sharjah Airport, itself, could one day be privatised, Dr. Al Hajri says that he would welcome the idea. “It is up to the government, but in own personal opinion, I am very open to that,” he comments. “We are heading in the right direction for that, as there is traffic growth and there is commercial growth.”||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code