Home / Jebel Ali airport plans met with scepticism

Jebel Ali airport plans met with scepticism

Dubai’s DCA has brought forward plans to construct the Jebel Ali airport by a decade; however, air cargo carriers are unsure about it.

Dubai’s second airport is set to open before the end of 2006, after the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) brought forward its plans for a Jebel Ali airport by a decade. The development has been welcomed by companies operating out of the Jebel Ali Free Zone, but some air cargo professionals question what benefit the new airport will be provide and how it will impact on cargo transiting through Dubai.

The Jebel Ali airport, which will be built near the Dubai Investment Park, will initially only handle freighters and business jets. The US $272 million first phase of the scheme includes the construction of a cargo terminal, a runway and general air handling facilities. After a second phase, the airport will handle charter passenger services and, possibly, low cost carriers.

It is understood that the airport will initially handle 250,000-300,000 tonnes of cargo per year. All freighters serving Dubai will have to fly to Jebel Ali, except for Emirates SkyCargo’s operations, which will stay at Dubai International. Dar al-Handasah and AdP have formed a joint venture called Aéroports de Dubai to work on the project.

The long-talked about airport was originally scheduled to open sometime between 2015 and 2020, but the plan has been brought forward because of the growing traffic levels at the current airport. Dubai International, which is also undergoing major expansion work, is expected to hit 50 million passengers a year by 2015, at which point it will be unable to handle many more flights.

“When you look at the airport and it’s existing expansion we are going to reach that number [50 million] very soon,” His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, president, Dubai DCA, told Aviation Business Middle East.

Companies operating at Jebel Ali, which is a major redistribution point for goods coming into the Gulf, have welcomed the plan, as it should cut down on the delays they face when transporting goods from the current airport. Despite Dubai International being just 25 Km from Jebel Ali, it often takes a couple days to move goods between them, because of the need for forwarders to consolidate loads onto trucks. There is also extra paperwork to be completed, as goods need to be registered both when they enter the Dubai Airport Free Zone and the Jebel Ali Free Zone.

“A Jebel Ali airport would save us one or two days in clearing the goods from the international airport down to Jebel Ali,” commented Michael Vosper, operations director of IT distributor, Tech Data. “It would also reduce the cost of moving products from the airport down to Jebel Ali.”

For goods terminating in Dubai, or which will be shipped on by truck, the new airport will be a bonus. However, for carriers and forwarders transiting goods through Dubai the new airport may create a number of problems. In particular, it will be difficult to transfer cargo from a freighter at Jebel Ali and then put it into the belly of a passenger aircraft leaving Dubai International.

“A lot of the cargo that comes into Dubai connects onto feeder flights from Emirates or the other passenger airlines. This is where it becomes a logistical nightmare in terms of transit times, moving from one airport to the other airport, and the costs go up,” commented John Koopman, regional manager, ground operations, Middle East & India, Polar Air Cargo.

Dubai could copy Tokyo, where a road dedicated to just transit cargo links the two airports; however, there are seemingly no plans for this at present. Instead, trucks will have to drive along the already congested main road between Jebel Ali and the existing airport. “If you are not going to improve the overall infrastructure, it’s going to be a nightmare; everybody knows how bad traffic is here [in Dubai],” said Koopman.

“Looking at it purely from the standpoint of a cargo carrier... you may as well move to Sharjah [as Jebel Ali],” he added.

Furthermore, while Dubai International is beginning to fill up, there are already a number of other airports in the UAE that have plenty of spare capacity. Abu Dhabi International is just 40 minutes from Jebel Ali, while Sharjah International is no more than an hour and a half away. “The question is whether a Jebel Ali airport is really needed,” commented Gunnar Loehr, Lufthansa Cargo’s regional manager for the Arabian Peninsular & Iran.

“There is another very good airport in Sharjah, which is just up the road. It has good handling and there is plenty of room for expansion,” he added.

However, while the other UAE airports remain under-utilised, they have traditionally not co-operated with each other and Dubai’s DCA has no plans to begin working with an airport in another Emirate. “Every airport is independent… this will always be,” said Sheikh Ahmed. “For the strategy of a hub you cannot have more than one airport. You have to always work from one airport to build a hub,” he explained.

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