Construction began on the port at Jebel Ali in 1978, but it wasn’t until around 1985 that the man-made facility–generally recognized as the bedrock of Dubai’s modern-day success–started to fulfill its potential–and the emirate’s knack for turning ideas into world-beating projects shouldn’t be underestimated. Although Dubai World Central (DWC) airport has seen the global downturn delay plans to turn it into the city’s main aviation hub, Khalifa Al Zaffin, executive chairman of government-owned Dubai Aviation City Corp., whose main responsibility is construction at Dubai Aviation City, told AIN that long-term plans for the airport remain in place.
So is Dubai World Central a sleeping giant whose time yet to come? Progress at the airport has been slow but steady, with plans including establishing several free zones and real estate projects there. In 2011, DWC’s first full year of operation, the airport saw 8,200 aircraft movements, mostly cargo and training flights, and it launched general-aviation operations that April. It also hosted some 36 airlines, mainly cargo charter. The airport’s terminal capacity is five million passengers a year, expandable to seven million, and the cargo terminal has a capacity of 250,000 tons.
When in 2010 Emirates airline scaled back plans to move to DWC, located adjacent to Dubai’s huge Jebel Ali port and free zone, in favor of locating at two new terminals at the existing Dubai International Airport (DIA), analysts were quick to write the new project’s obituary. Original DWC plans were shelved as the global downturn made the $20 billion price tag look excessive.
MEBA 2012 is expected to give the transfer of business aviation from DIA a boost. The site also is expected to play a prominent role as host of the 2013 Dubai Airshow, and will be a key plank in the bid to host World Expo 2020. Al Zaffin said he expects to build a second runway at DWC within five years.
Full Capacity in 2018
Given Emirates’ revamped plans, DIA’s blueprints don’t envisage the airport hitting full capacity until 2018. “Emirates cannot have a partial operation,” said Al Zaffin. “They would have to have a total move. For Emirates to move, we would need to have a terminal of 100 million passengers. That would probably take ten-plus years. Besides, the money required would be about $20 billion. So it’s better for them to stay where they are. Even if they want to move, we don’t have the facilities. So they are staying at DIA for now.”
In government circles, however, the DWC setback was seen as an opportunity to develop niche businesses, and the transfer of several cargo operations has already begun to take the pressure off a congested DIA. Business aviation is the next target and, by 2015, a scheduled airline, possibly a low-cost carrier, should add to a growing roster of services. Speculation has been rife for more than a year about the identity of an “anchor” airline for DWC (also known as Al Maktoum International), with FlyDubai the name usually mentioned.
This is something that Al Zaffin is keen to quash. “At Dubai Airports [Dubai’s airports authority], we never go to an airline and tell them [what to do],” he told AIN. “They have to go of their own accord. We never force them.” But he sees chinks of light: “Cargo is ever growing, and has [brought] relief to Dubai International. We’ll see a lot of growth there. MEBA 2012 will take place in the terminal building, which is ready for operation.”
Opportunity for Bizav
The scheduled-airline vacuum has created an opportunity for business aviation operators hard pressed to obtain adequate slots at DIA and already is putting Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen Executive Airport to good use. Al Zaffin is optimistic that international interest could hold the key to the next phase of DWC’s development. “We are developing the infrastructure at Dubai Aviation City for executive flights. International players could develop the business and executive side, as well as MRO,” he said. “One area in our passenger terminal is [dedicated] to executive flights, ready to go. We have already signed with executive flight operators to build their FBO operations.”
Aircraft manager and charterer ExecuJet Aviation Group and MRO specialist Jet Aviation are spearheading the move, said Al Zaffin, who wants other potential players to cooperate on the FBO. He envisions a single facility run by a consortium, so that early adopters don’t leave the rest behind. “For now, we want to attract everybody. If you nominate two operators, they would take advantage and the rest would lose out,” he said. “If all of them are working on it, I think there is a sense of ownership. You want to have more [operators] coming, and more developing.
“If you want to avoid the hassle, traffic and rush of DIA, Al Maktoum is a very good airport to be in,” he said. The site’s attractiveness could be enhanced by a helicopter service to ferry people to different areas of town. “We are looking at that and it is a possibility,” confirmed Al Zaffin.
He agrees that road improvements are probably necessary, to help executive travelers avoid heavy goods traffic around Jebel Ali Free Zone and Industrial Zone. But, he added, many business passengers live, or want to stay in hotels, somewhere in Jumeirah, adjacent to DWC, rather than downtown, near DIA. “You might find 50 percent of all executive flight passengers going to a beach resort rather than an inner-city hotel,” he predicted.
“I think with Al Maktoum International, [there is] a psychological barrier that needs to be solved,” Al Zaffin admitted. But with good prices, a good operating environment and opportunities for business, he is optimistic about the future of business aviation at DWC. With final capacity expected to reach 160 million passengers and 12 million tons of cargo a year, it’s clear that his worries don’t stretch that far out into the future. With Jebel Ali now the jewel in the crown of DP World, the world’s third-largest port terminal operator, it would be a brave punter that bet against a similar success story for DWC a decade or two from now.