The Middle East may be going through troubled times, but that isn’t stopping the region’s aviation industry from expanding
In the Middle East, great wealth rubs shoulders with great strife. It is a place of two parts, very broadly. There is the troubled Middle East – the countries torn by war and strife and the ones that get the most coverage in the western media like Iraq or Syria – and the opulent Middle East – the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia, for example.
As one might expect, the latter have well-developed aviation sectors, while the former have a great deal of rebuilding to do.
The region is home to some of the world’s most dynamic aviation markets. In the UAE, new low-cost carriers such as flydubai and Air Arabia are competing with somewhat longer established – though still relatively young – carriers like Emirates and Etihad. The UAE also packs in a large number of airports, relative to its size: the original main hub, Dubai International, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah are all within less than 100 miles of each other, all feature in the regional top 10 and they have lately been joined by the new Al Maktoum International (or Dubai World Central), which promises eventually to outshine them all when it finally gets up to speed.
In this part of the world, countries build infrastructure first and then worry about finding business to fill it.
But not all countries belong to the elite; many have a much more troubled recent past.
Iran appeared to have achieved something of a breakthrough when international sanctions were lifted as part of a nuclear deal. In remarkably quick succession, it announced an order for over 100 Airbus planes, to modernise its decrepit fleet of ageing and obsolete planes.
However, with a new, apparently much more hawkish occupant of the White House, that order has been thrown into doubt. While Airbus may be a European company, its planes include many US-made components and would be subject to any continued sanctions that President Trump might choose to impose in Iran.
In any case, Iran badly needs to sort out its aviation infrastructure before it can contemplate the large-scale operation of fleets of shiny new aircraft. It has been estimated that the country’s airports alone need the equivalent of billions of dollars for repairs and to bring them up to anything approaching contemporary standards.
Still, Iran could possibly become a regional aviation powerhouse. While suggestions in the wake of the lifting of sanctions that it could become a second Dubai now seem over-euphoric, this country of close on 80 million people is in fact the Middle East’s second-largest economy and it certainly has the potential to grow its airports and aviation sector several-fold. It has around 55 airports, though most of them are severely under-invested and fall well short of modern standards and customer expectations.
FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH
In many other countries, aviation continues to break all records. Passenger traffic at Dubai International Airport reached another all-time high in January 2017 – 8 million – and traffic is continuing to grow at near double-digit levels.
One of the major players in Middle Eastern handling is dnata, which has now expanded far beyond its original home market of Dubai and has operations in countries throughout the world, including the UK, Singapore, the Netherlands and Australia.
Back in its ‘home’ market, vice-president for commercial and business development Emma Deane says that as the ground handler at Dubai International (DXB) and Al Maktoum International (DWC) Airports, dnata has welcomed a number of new carriers to Dubai in 2016/17.
These include new operators to DXB such as Corendon Dutch Airlines and Rossiya Airlines as well as the resumption of services by Thomson Airlines and Nepal Airlines at DWC and DXB, respectively. Dnata is also “excitedly awaiting the commencement of operations by Himalayan Airlines and Salam Air”.
Deane adds: “We have also seen strong growth from Air India, Air India Express, Jet Airways, Indigo and Spice Jet, as India and Dubai continue to strengthen their tourism and business ties. Given the challenges posed to the airline industry over recent years, it is encouraging to see the eagerness to be a part of the growth story of Dubai remains strong in all corners of the globe. We also receive regular requests from ad-hoc charter operators, taking advantage of the tourist appetite for exploring Dubai during the winter months.”
Much of the increase in traffic is home grown, with Emirates and flydubai continuing to boost their network and frequencies. The gauge of the Emirates fleet continues to increase, incidentally also making dnata the largest handler of the A380 worldwide.
Likewise, regional carriers such as Saudia, Gulf Air, Kuwait Airways and Qatar Airways have all bolstered their operations to DXB over the past year, with Qatar Airways also adding flights to DWC. The geo-centricity of Dubai and the Middle East generally lends itself to building itself into a natural hub between East and West, and with all regional carriers scheduled to receive significant numbers of new aircraft over the coming year, dnata anticipates that this trend will continue. Dubai World Central (DWC), Dubai’s new airport, is at the heart of the long-term growth strategy of aviation in the emirate.
In 2016, dnata handled 850,633 passengers, up 84.5% compared to 2015. Deane comments that “dnata is excited to support the recently launched next phase expansion of the DWC Passenger Terminal, which on completion in late 2017, will accommodate 26 million passengers per annum. In the meantime, we continue to see significant enhancements to the existing facilities at DXB.”
The latter’s Concourse D, which opened almost a year ago, can accommodate 60 international carriers. The 18 million passengers that will pass through annually can avail of the flagship Marhaba lounge, which includes sleeping rooms, a movie theatre and business centre, various airline lounges and retail outlets prior to boarding through open gates, a concept which is unique to Concourse D.
Following the refurbishment of Concourse C, dnata will support Emirates across three concourses, the flydubai hub at Terminal 2 and international carriers across both Terminal 1 and Terminal 2. Occupying an impressive footprint of over 2 million m2, DXB handled over 83 million passengers in 2016, with Marhaba Meet and Assist agents and dnata ground staff ensuring smooth connection of passengers and their baggage.
Deane considers: “Carriers continue to seek safe, on-time performance from dnata – which we are delighted to consistently deliver. Over and above basic ground handling, we have seen an increasing trend of outsourcing non-core business to ground service providers. Consequently, we are increasingly asked to provide a full-service package to carriers including station management and lounge facilities to name a few.”
As an organisation, dnata can provide a one-stop-shop for carriers by supporting several aspects of an airline’s business – from selling tickets as a GSA through its travel business, to uplifting meals onto flights through its catering operations, not just in Dubai, but in 82 other countries.
As a result: “The handling market is becoming one which values strategic relationships and corresponding benefits generated for a carrier from dnata’s knowledge of its core product.”
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN
While life in most of the Middle East is more ‘normal’ than the news bulletins would have you believe and this is reflected in airport operations, events in other countries can sometimes impinge on otherwise peaceful places, points out Nada Hindi, responsible for marketing at MEAG – Middle East Airlines Ground Handling – which provides full ground handling services at Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut (RHIA).
Since the ending of the country’s civil war, Lebanon has been quietly rebuilding its aviation sector and has enjoyed many years of comparative calm, out of the international spotlight.
However, it can’t entirely ignore events on its doorstep. Beirut has been handling large numbers of refugee flights from its troubled neighbour, Syria. Some of these unfortunate people need immediate medical attention on arrival, so MEAG must arrange doctors, nurses and medical equipment such as oxygen masks.
Thankfully, perhaps, the influx of refugees has abated lately, along with the number of refugee flights – though not before the estimated one million refugees had swelled the population of this small country by around 25%.
Lebanon itself has had its troubles in the past, of course. MEAG’s parent, Middle East Airlines (MEA/Airliban) endured the country’s civil war from 1975 to 1990, often having to operate as an airline in exile with the planes removed to the safety of neighbouring countries.
Everything has now stabilised, though, and MEA was able to rebuild its route network; indeed, it strengthened and improved its services to Europe, the Middle East and the Gulf.
MEAG now employs more than 1400 people and, as the main handler at RHIA, serves 28 airline customers and handles over 24,000 departures a year. “Life is back to normal here,” confirms Hindi.
In 2015, MEAG handled 83% of passengers, 92% of cargo and 83% of all flights at RHIA. It lists 32 carrier customers, although the actual operators tend to fluctuate.
MEAG will concentrate on its core Beirut market for the foreseeable future, Hindi adds. There are plans for expansion outside Lebanon, but these are long term, she stresses.
Meanwhile, MEAG is expanding its Beirut operations, including building a new, modern cargo terminal – “Cargo is a growing business,” Hindi explains.
Again, this is partly due to events in neighbouring countries. Syria is effectively closed to air transport so Lebanon has increasingly taken on the role of transhipment hub for neighbouring countries such as Iraq. Another major MEAG development is its investment in an extensive new handling fleet and equipment in line with the latest IATA directives.