Flourishing UAE Airports Could Handle Even More Traffic

Dubai Air Show » 2013
November 15, 2013, 4:30 PM

With eight civil airports boasting IATA designations, it’s reasonable to ask why there are so many facilities in a country the size of the UAE. Partly, this is because five of the seven emirates Abu Dhabi (3), Dubai (2), Fujairah (1), Ras al-Khaimah (1) and Sarjah (1) have the demand. The other two­–Ajman, at 259 sq km the smallest, and Umm al-Quwain, the least populous­–do not.

This has led to a flourishing aviation sector, quite apart from the success of the UAE’s two globally competitive airlines. Led by the two major emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and their respective carriers, Etihad Airways and Emirates, the UAE’s main airports have built up a total passenger capacity of nearly 105 million and saw 2012 passenger throughput of around 80 million.

The enormous success of Emirates airline has created dilemmas for airport planners in the emirate of Dubai. When Dubai’s second airport, Dubai World Central in Jebel Ali, was announced in 2006, the intention was to move Emirates airline to the Jebel Ali area early this decade, but the global recession made the cost of building a completely new airport, which Dubai Aviation City Corp. officials put at $100 billion, as too high for even free-spending Dubai to bear.

As a result, a third, 20-gate, A380-dedicated terminal at DXB, known as Concourse A, followed, increasing total airport capacity from 60 to 75 million in January 2013. Plans for a fourth concourse at DXB are now advanced, and it is set to be complete by 2015. This has given Dubai aviation officials the latitude to develop ancillary services at DWC: the arrival of cargo services took place in 2010, when the airport first opened for operations, and business aviation, seeking a new home away from overcrowded DXB, came next. Major announcements on bizav are expected here this week.

The emirate of Abu Dhabi, also home to the UAE’s capital city of the same name, has fed off Dubai’s success and boasts three major airports. Its original airport, Al Bateen, has undergone many changes. When the new Abu Dhabi International Airport came into being in 1982, Al Bateen was allocated for royal flights and military use. In 2008, it became Abu Dhabi’s main business aviation gateway and today hosts more than 10,000 aircraft movements a year.

As home to UAE flag carrier Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi International Airport is now a major facility. Turkish concern TAV Construction, in a joint venture with Greece’s Consolidated Contractors Co. and local company Arabtec, is well into building the iconic Midfield Terminal, which will bring the airport’s eventual capacity to 47 million. Terminal 2 opened in 2005 and a second runway was opened in 2008.

Abu Dhabi’s third airport, at Al Ain, the emirate of Abu Dhabi’s second city and garden weekend retreat, serves a sizeable local community. Importantly, Al Ain has also been earmarked as the home of several aviation-training academies, including Horizon International Flight Academy, and is also the base for Strata Manufacturing, the wings and empennage builder that announced $3 billion of OEM orders in the first 18 months of its existence.

The Northern emirates are also contributing. Sharjah Airport is a growing facility and has a throughput of around 20 percent of that of DXB in cargo and movements. Ras Al Khaimah International has a capacity of around two million passengers a year, as does Fujairah International. Both facilities serve growing industrial hubs and oil and gas business.

While the two other emirates of Ajman and Umm Al Quwain also boast airstrips, these are thought to be largely devoted to recreational flying, with no commercial operations. However, the UAE is not alone in its stunning airport development story: Saudi Arabia, the GCC member with the biggest population, at over 25 million, has 26 domestic and international airports.

“The UAE is a federation. We have [a system of] local government. Federal government cannot prevent, or [remove] the right from, an emirate to establish an airport unless that airport clashes with a neighbor,” said Ahmed Al Rawahi, director, Airworthiness, Aviation Safety Affairs Sector, UAE General Civil Aviation Authority. “So Dubai has right to establish an airport; Abu Dhabi has the right, Sharjah and so on. How capable they are depends on competition.

“Dubai Airport is working well and is taking the biggest slice [of traffic]. Abu Dhabi is expanding its airport and trying to keep up with Dubai. Sharjah is doing the same thing. Why not? Maybe RAK and Fujairah are behind a little bit. That’s the way the world works.”

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