Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen Executive Airport (Stand 1943) is fast gaining traction as the Middle East’s first and only dedicated business aviation gateway. The former military air base has been reinvented as a business aviation service hub, along the lines of airports such as the London-area Farnborough and Biggin Hill, and Le Bourget in Paris.
“What we have achieved in terms of growth and market recognition in the past 24 months has been incredible; it’s a great turnaround story for the airport,” said Mohammed Al Bulooki, chief commercial officer of Al Bateen’s parent company ADAC. Today Al Bateen is home to 10 based operators and enjoyed annual traffic growth rates averaging 22 percent between 2009 and the end of 2011. But what is more impressive is that itinerant traffic has swollen by as much as 52 percent.
In 2011, the airport received 8,500 movements and it expects this total to rise by another 9 percent this year to reach 9,500. According to Al Bulooki, Al Bateen attracted 124 new aircraft operators in 2011. “This is testament to the strong word-of-mouth recommendations we are getting and the speed at which we are handling technical stops,” he told AIN. “Pilots are telling us that no airport in the [Arabian Gulf] region understands the needs of business aircraft operators as we do.”
Al Bateen’s business plan is not based first and foremost on raising income from aircraft landing and parking fees. In fact, last December it slashed landing fees by an average of 36 percent and parking fees by 17 percent. Instead, the airport looks to bolster its revenues from services including handling, aircraft cleaning, catering (from its own caterer), coffee shop, advertising, car parking and hangar charges. Soon it intends to offer serviced offices for the use of operators.
The latest investment at the airport-owned DhabiJet FBO has been to open a dedicated two-floor crew lounge, immediately adjacent to the VIP terminal. Designed with what is described as a “European contemporary look,” the new facility features a work area, conference rooms, showers (with care packs), equipment storage, a prayer room and a rest area serving drinks and snacks. Flight planning is available on-site, with DhabiJet’s managers based in the building to support clients. The next-door operations room has a direct view of the ramp and crew can enjoy fresh air in the FBO’s own garden. Looking ahead, the FBO plans to add a secure door directly onto the ramp so that crew can get airside without having to go through the VIP lounge.
DhabiJet’s VIP terminal consists of a large majlis–the Arabic term literally meaning “a place for sitting” that commonly describes a comfortably furnished lounge. This can be divided into two areas–for instance, to accommodate groups of travelers separated by gender–and the facility also includes a prayer room and a kitchen. Porters are on hand to assist passengers.
Seeking MROs, FBOs
Al Bateen’s management is seeking to attract maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) providers, such as Jet Aviation and Air Works, with which it signed provisional agreements last year. Al Bulooki said Jet Aviation is now in the final stages of preparing to sign a three- or five-year contract for the planned facility in Abu Dhabi and a hangar there already carries the Swiss-based company’s name. India-based Air Works is still “analyzing the market and deciding what it wants to do,” according to Al Bulooki.
In Al Bateen’s view there eventually is scope for multiple FBOs and it fully intends to encourage other branded service providers to compete alongside its own DhabiJet. But Bulooki said it won’t push this until there is sufficient traffic to support more than one FBO, indicating that this could be deferred until the airport is receiving approximately 20,000 movements per year, possibly by 2014. “We don’t want someone to make a huge investment in an FBO, to deliver the standards [of service] that we would require and find that they have a high-cost base that doesn’t make [commercial] sense.”
The airport is attracting more itinerant operations, some of them being technical stops on long-haul flights from, for example, the UK to China. Some of these formerly used other increasingly crowded Arabian Gulf airports such as Dubai and Doha. Al Bateen is seeking to convince such operators that it can ensure hassle-free 24/7 operations without the need to secure slots, plus a full ILS and assured rapid access to fuel.
Located only 10 minutes from downtown, Al Bateen, Abu Dhabi’s original international gateway, now serves as base for 11 tenants, including VIP carriers Falcon Aviation Services, Al Jaber Aviation, Rotana Jet and MRO Jet Aviation. Abu Dhabi International Airport, some 22 miles from town, is also seeing robust growth through Etihad, the UAE’s second major international airline after Emirates, and tourist arrivals there are expected to top three million by 2015.
Falcon has 25 aircraft in operation: 21 rotary- and four fixed-wing–a Gulfstream G450, two Embraer Legacy 600s and a Lineage 1000. It also manages six aircraft and has a further six on order. Al Jaber Aviation operates a fleet of five aircraft, two Embraer Legacy 600s, two Lineage 1000s and an Airbus Elite 318Plus.
“As the region’s only dedicated private jet airport, Al Bateen is an airport we often fly to, and our customers as well as our flight deck crew are very pleased with its FBO service,” said Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, who also runs the flagcarrier’s Qatar Executive business jet operation.
For his part, Al Bulooki does see scope for developing other dedicated business aviation airports in the Gulf region and, in theory, he feels the Abu Dhabi team could partner with other airports on such ventures. Meanwhile, DhabiJet itself has had initial approaches from other firms in the region looking to tap its expertise to develop FBOs elsewhere.