Gama Group, the fast-growing business aviation services group, is quickly settling into its new base at Sharjah International Airport. The Farnborough, UK-based company is finding that customers now recognize the limitations of Dubai International Airport, which has become increasingly busy with airline traffic, making it hard for business aircraft operators to get convenient slots–especially at short notice. Meanwhile, Gama’s move into Saudi Arabia with new FBOs planned in Jeddah and Riyadh are coming together fast.
It is now almost five years since Gama Aviation (Stand 110) was set up in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with its main base in Dubai. Dave Edwards, who is managing director of Gama’s Middle East and Asia operations (including its new Hong Kong facility) told AIN that its Sharjah Executive Aircraft Flight Centre, set up in January 2012 under a five-year exclusive contract with the Sharjah Department of Civil Aviation to handle all business aircraft handling, is ideally placed.
“[Typically] it takes only six minutes from landing to getting out of the aircraft, and then it’s a 20-minute drive to downtown Dubai. This makes Sharjah very attractive,” said Edwards. His team already manages a fleet based at Dubai International that consists of two Embraer Legacy 600s, one Legacy 650, a Hawker 800XP, Bombardier Global XRS, Airbus A318CJ, a Boeing 737-500 and a Challenger 604. On the eve of the show Gama was expecting to announce the addition of its first Sharjah-based aircraft.
Despite frustrations with so-called gray charters, mainly involving overseas AOC holders taking charter bookings that they are not legally entitled to fly, Gama is making progress. “We have seen growth of 20 percent, month-on-month, since February,” said Edwards.
But Edwards remains unhappy that so little appears to be done to stop illegal charter flying in the Arabian Gulf–involving, in some cases, he claimed, some “household names” from Europe. “We have a local company and are partnering here, and we have spent the best part of $2 million to set up the company to be legal,” he said.
Meanwhile, many operators have signed handling agreements with Gama. “There is still a requirement for permits to land [in the UAE], so it makes sense for people to have handling agreements with us–we can still get a permit within 30 minutes even in the middle of the night.”
Sharjah International is the oldest airport in the Emirates and can trace its history back to 1932, although the current facility was built in the 1970s. It has a 13,000-ft runway, and has traditionally been popular with cargo operators. In recent years it has also become home to low-cost operators.
In October this year there were 5,125 scheduled and 560 nonscheduled movements at Sharjah International Airport, and just over 640,000 passengers passed through it. A particular attraction of Sharjah is its proximity to Dubai compared to the new Al Maktoum International Airport, which is at least a 45-minute drive from the city center. Sharjah is also ideal for access to the Northern Emirates. What’s more, there is plenty of space there for business aviation firms to expand.
One of Gama’s strengths is as an engineering company as well, so to add extra appeal to the Sharjah FBO, Edwards said, the facility gained UAE Part 145 approval in June. “We like to have the capability around the world to maintain our own fleet,” he told AIN. “Hopefully by the end of the year we will have EASA 145, too, so we can maintain aircraft that are on the Isle of Man register [for example].”
Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, Edwards is busy recruiting a team to run Gama’s new FBOs. “The headquarters will be Jeddah and by the end of next year we will have moved into Riyadh too,” he said. “There are a lot of good people there, for example, because of NetJets having been there, and they are Saudi nationals, which is how I want that company to work.”
Saudi Arabia still has, by some estimates, more than 50 percent of the region’s business aviation traffic. “Jeddah is the main trading hub. When I first went there I had never seen so many business aircraft in one place in my life,” said Edwards, who has lived in Dubai since 2008.
Another recent move could draw more operators to Gama, after it announced a major expansion at Glasgow Airport in Scotland. It now has an FBO there, too, situated on the Great Circle route between its facility at the New York City-area Teterboro Airport and the UAE.