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Mon 1 Jan 2007 12:36 PM

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Catering to customer needs

Sharjah International Airport is investing AED 350 million to improve its infrastructure. Development of the airport’s cargo and freight facilities forms a key part of its investment strategy.

The history of aviation in Sharjah dates back to as long ago as 1932. That year, the emirate became a stopover point for Imperial Airways flights leaving Britain for India and Australia. The airfield was handed over to the Sharjah government when Britain withdraw from the region and in the four decades since it has come a long way.

Sharjah's Department of Civil Aviation has invested AED 350 million to dramatically improve the facilities that the current airport has to offer. Much of that investment is inevitably focused on passenger growth and supporting Air Arabia, the Sharjah-owned low cost carrier.

Air freight, traditionally an area of strength for Sharjah, is not being overlooked, however. Dr Ghanem Al Hajri, director general, Department of Civil Aviation & Sharjah Airport Authority, says Cargolux, Martin Air and, primarily, Lufthansa are the airport's key cargo airlines. "Sharjah is also the largest airport for cargo charters in the UAE," he says.

The airport has invested in the development of its Freight Centre following continued growth in traffic. Key recent developments include the addition of two new aircraft parking bays and two new 4 pallet-trucks.

This comes on the back of healthy growth in cargo throughput this year. According to figures released by the airport, the Freight Centre handled 411,697 tons in the first nine months of 2006, compared with 349,259 tons in the same period last year, growth of 17.88%.

"The Sharjah Airport Freight Centre always aims to service its valued clients in the most efficient manner with standards that match international levels of service and excellence," says Ali H. Kombargi, director of the Sharjah International Airport Freight Centre. "All procedures and facilities at the Freight Centre have been approved by the ISO Quality certifications to match the best standards in the industry."

The addition of two new parking bays at the facility is a response to the growth in the number of cargo flights stopping off there. For example, four weekly midnight flights bring in meat for local consumption. In response, Sharjah Municipality has drawn up plans to install a new chilled storage area at the airport.

The airport is keen to stress its willingness to meet different clients' needs. For example, the airport has constructed a shed used for the storage and checking of live bees. For five months of the year, two weekly flights carrying 20 tons of bees are flown from Egypt to Sharjah. The bees are then transported by road to Al Ain where honey is prepared at bee farms there.

The Freight Centre uses text messages to inform customers when shipments arrive at the airport. The airport has invested heavily in multiple types of security and claims that there have been no security alarms or thefts at the Freight Centre. CCTV systems were recently upgraded to digital technology from analogue and unspecified new measures have been in put place all five of the airport's cargo terminals to ensure safe transportation of goods through the airport.

"We have five warehouses, each 72,000 square metres in size, and we are expanding the facilities to include dangerous goods [storage], cold stores and 14 parking positions for four wide body or 10 narrow body aircraft right in front of the warehouses," explains Al Hajri. "This will help us move cargo quickly to the airside and for cargo, when it arrives, to be delivered [to forwarders] within two hours."

"We have a service where we can keep customers updated on the whereabouts of their cargo. We are very specialised in animal handling, and we have a special ramp area for handling livestock, bees and horses."

A breakdown of the airport's cargo throughput showed that imports increased from 47,488 tons in January-September 2005 to 53,913 tons in January-September 2006, a rise of 13.53%. Exports touched 82,578 tons this year and transferred cargo grew from 16,887 tons last year to 57,318 tons this year. Transit cargo grew from 191,801 tons in the first nine months of last year to 217,888 tons this year.

Supporting the airport's cargo growth is its sharpened focus on passenger traffic. Passengers will soon be able to enjoy a new arrival and departure area, improved amenities and an e-gate facility. For the nine months to September, the airport welcomed 2,148,892 passengers, according to Airports Council International, year on year growth of 25.6%.

The key catalyst for this growth is the low cost carrier Air Arabia, which began flights in 2003. The airport blueprint has room for throughput of eight million passengers annually.

Cargo airlines operating at Sharjah are undoubtedly beneficiaries of the emirate's focus on its passenger airline. There could, however, be problems ahead for the several Sharjah-based airlines that operate Soviet era freighters. The UAE's civil aviation authority has been looking into a ban on all planes over 25 years old, which could impact a significant number of Ilyushin and Antonov planes.

"Russian freighters are needed because they are capable of landing in difficult areas. They are cheaper to maintain, which means they are more attractive to the shipper," says Al Hajri.

Nevertheless, he believes affected airlines will cope. "The trend is for operators to move towards acquiring Western aircraft, although the fuel consumption for these is higher. The operators are aware of [the proposed ban] and they will be able to change and acquire aircraft."

Aircraft maintenance is an essential part of any airport's offering and in 2004 Sharjah signed a deal for Abu Dhabi-based GAMCO to begin operations there. "Having GAMCO is a major step towards upgrading our facilities and services to meet international requirements," says Al Hajri.

Sharjah International Airport has also ramped up its internal training activities in response to rapid changes in the aviation business. The airport's training section has held 92 internal sessions and delivered training to 771 individual participants.

"We have increased the number of courses and workshops over the next year to encourage growth and expect participation of more than 800 participants and trainees," says Dhiab Mohammad Bani Yaas, head of the training section at Sharjah Airport Authority. "There has been development in the training department with the formation of a qualified team of trainers, including a female UAE trainer. Also, there has been an advancement of training programs into an integrated and comprehensive structure covering various sections in marketing and ground services, accounting, purchasing and customer service."

The decision to boost the airport's training capabilities was taken in 2002. The scope of training was extended beyond the airport's ground staff to encompass all employees. Courses now focus on departmental challenges as well as keeping employees informed of ongoing developments in the aviation industry. Employees are also sent outside on IATA training courses.

Equipping Emiratis to handle high level jobs in the airport is an important part of the training section's activities. 50 Emiratis have graduated from courses this year.

For next year's program, the airport is particularly keen on courses that emphasise service and how to deal with the public. Programs with names such as ‘Dealing with the public', ‘Management skills', and ‘Behaviour of administrators and supervisors' will feature prominently on next year's agenda. Through an ambitious investment programme and a focus on niche services, Sharjah International Airport aims to keep ahead of the needs of its air cargo customers.

Freight Centre expansion

• Two new parking bays added, bringing the total to 14.

• Five warehouses of 72,000 m2 fully operational.

• New chilled storage area is being added.

• Shed used for the storage of live bees already functioning.

• Customers informed by text messages when shipments arrive.

• CCTV systems installed to bolster security.

“Air freight, traditionally an area of strength for Sharjah, is not being overlooked.”

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