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Mon 1 Jan 2007 12:00 AM

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Grand ambitions

Dr. Ghanem Al Hajri, director general, Department of Civil Aviation and the Sharjah Airport Authority, talks about the opportunities that the growth of Sharjah International Airport will bring.

According to Sharjah’s travel and tourism website, the emirate boasts being the first to have an airfield. Built in 1932 as a stopover for flights to India and Australia by Imperial Airways (now known as British Airways), the airfield was handed over to the Sharjah government when Britain left the region in 1968.

Since then, Sharjah International Airport (SIA) has come a long way, with Sharjah’s Department of Civil Aviation having further development plans of its own. The completion of the expansion at the end of this year promises to be a marked improvement on what the current airport facilities have to offer.

The expansion project for SIA is costing a justifiable sum of AED350 million, not least because each of the emirates are improving its airports to facilitate the increasing demand for capacity and the huge growth of the aviation industry in the Middle East region overall.

Whilst SIA’s strengths have previously been in its cargo facilities, with four cargo terminals and six 1400m2 cargo bays, the DCA is keen to shift the focus by promoting its facilities for passengers. This includes 25 aircraft stands and eight departure gates, a prayer area, a travel agency, bureau de change and postal facilities, a newly opened Costa coffee shop and a runway measuring 4km.

Passengers will soon be able to make use of the airport’s new facilities, which will include new arrivals and departures lounges, as well as 40 check-in counters to facilitate the 100% capacity increase the DCA foresees. The extension to the main dome will incorporate two spin off domes. The old dome is for passengers and will be converted to a commercial meeting place with a pharmacy, around five outlets for food and a 24-hour emergency medical clinic. These will all be located within a short distance so passengers will not have to endure long walks around the airport in search of different airport services. The airport will be user friendly and caters for wheelchair access, with escalators and lifts. There will also be an e-gate facility and for shoppers, the capacity of the current duty free area will be extended by 40%.

Dr. Ghanem Al Hajri, director general, Department of Civil Aviation & Sharjah Airport Authority, believes that the emirate is fast becoming a popular transit, departure and arrival point for passengers.

SIA’s figures show that in 2000 it saw 25,997 aircraft movements compared to 38,699 in 2005. In terms of passenger movements, there were 948,207 in 2000 compared to the huge leap to 2,237,646 passengers in 2005. To cope with this ever-increasing demand, the airport has installed state-of-the-art check-in facilities and a newly renovated concourse.

Much of this growth is down to the success of low cost carrier Air Arabia, established in early 2003. The airline was formed by Amiri decree issued by Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohamed Al Qassimi and is owned by Sharjah Civil Aviation Department (50%), Sharjah Airport International Free Trade Zone Authority (SAIF Zone) (10%), and other founders include Sharjah based and Bahrain based strategic investors (40%).

Sharjah Airport Travel Agency (SATA), a key promoter of the emirate, is conveniently housed in the passenger terminal. It reports a 20% increase in passenger numbers in the first half of last year, resulting in a 25% rise in revenues across Middle East and subcontinent routes compared to 2005 figures.

Ghanem promises that the new airport infrastructure will be able to handle eight million passengers. “We recorded 2.6 million passengers last month. We have a masterplan in the coming months which will give the airport a new look to be able to accommodate all these passengers,” he says. “We are currently experiencing some congestion and the expansion will alleviate this. Demand is increasing and facilities required by Air Arabia mean that we have to change and fast. It’s important to improve our services in general and we are outsourcing a lot to save money.”

Aircraft maintenance is an essential part of an airport and Ghanem signed a deal in 2004 for maintenance repair and overhaul to be undertaken by Abu Dhabi-based Gulf Aircraft Maintenance Company (GAMCO).

Operating as a separate entity doing line maintenance, GAMCO is responsible for commercial and administrative business. “Having GAMCO is a major step towards upgrading our facilities and services to meet international requirements,” elaborates Ghanem. “GAMCO secured contracts with Air Arabia, and consolidated its business with Syrian Air, China Southern Airlines, Sudan Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines.”

He explains how the facilities at Sharjah have recently been upgraded to include an extended maintenance hangar, which provides 1292m2 of workspace, capable of accommodating up to four lightweight aircraft. The vast majority of work, however, is completed in dedicated service areas outside the hangar. Considerable investment has been made in new equipment in line with GAMCO’s authorisation to work on aircraft including Airbus A310s, A320s Boeing 707s, 727s, 737s, 747s, 757s and 767s among others.

A global concern for airports is security and safety, but Ghanem acknowledges that this can be an irritation for passengers. “Having to process people is an important aspect of running an airport, but it’s a real hassle for passengers. They can’t carry liquids on long haul flights, such as cough medicine or make up in their hand luggage,” he complains. “It’s too much for the travelling public and disturbs the flow of passengers. It’s a burden on airports and it’s not fair on them. How can you justify a passenger transiting to a European airport, leaving Dubai buying duty free if it will be confiscated?”

However, he is quick to endorse the importance of security despite his gripes, adding “It’s a requirement for every country and we have a secure airport with all the procedures in place by the concerned authorities.”

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is working with the world’s airports in the planning and development of international air transport. Some of these aspects are regulated, such as rules of the air, aircraft accident and incident investigation, air traffic services, and search and rescue security.

The DCA has established general safety within the airport. The unit abides by the rules and regulations set by international standards set by International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and International Air Travel Association (IATA), Airports Council International (ACI) and the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), a federal autonomous body set up to oversee the UAE aviation industry.

Ghanem says that the main priority for SIA is the safety of its passengers and staff in the airport. “We have strict regulations with the contractors on the work and equipment used on the site. It’s also important that disruptions are kept to a minimum so that the airport doesn’t lose any revenue,” he stresses.

New security procedures have been put in place to screen individuals working on the expansion and there are strict procedures for those working landside as well as airside.

“The goal set for the airport is to prepare for the upcoming ICAO member state audit this year,” Ghanem explains. “We are working with consultants to evaluate the current airport operations and, based on their recommendations, we will take the necessary steps to ensure SIA is the first in the UAE to be awarded Aerodrome certification and the safety management system certification.”

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