The UAE is fortunate to host two of the world’s greatest airlines along with a number of airports, including the world’s busiest in Dubai. Today, Dubai Airport is a global hub that has overtaken Heathrow as the world’s busiest airport by passenger traffic. In fact, Dubai’s airport has been so successful it is running out of space.
According to senior officials, Emirates airline, the emirate’s flagship carrier, is expected to move all of its operations to Dubai’s new Al Maktoum International Airport southwards near Jebel Ali sometime “after 2020”.
The new airport will capitalise on the growing population of residents near what is known as New Dubai areas such as Jumeirah Lake Towers and Dubai Marina, and will also serve the newly named Dubai South district, located midway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai and to host the World Expo 2020. According to Paul Griffiths, Dubai Airports’ CEO, Dubai International Airport could be shut down in the future while the emirate decides to switch back to a single mega airport model.
This move would also unlock the value of the land spread over 2,900 hectares. The relocation of the city’s flagship carrier along with the potential shutdown of the older airport is a major move that could realign the aviation landscape in UAE.
Etihad, the second largest of the four UAE national airlines, could take advantage of this opportunity should it decide to operate flights out of Sharjah International Airport. Etihad wouldn’t need to replicate the services it currently serves from its hub in Abu Dhabi, but it could consider offering a limited service of the country’s most popular long-haul outbound destinations that are currently not available from Sharjah such as London, Munich, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur through its ever growing fleet.
In addition to offering long-haul flights, Etihad could consider launching cargo services from Sharjah International, currently ranked as the ninth busiest cargo airport in the Middle East and used by Germany’s Lufthansa for its freight operations.
Sharjah International – which sits 25 kilometres north of Dubai International – is the country’s third largest and busiest airport. In 2015 it set a record of over 10 million passengers with a growth of 5.5 per cent over the previous year while Abu Dhabi’s airport served over 23 million passengers. According to data from the Airports Council International, Sharjah International is the eighth busiest airport in the Middle East.
In October 2014, Sharjah Airport completed a major Dh500 million runway expansion project that would allow it to receive large-bodied aircrafts such as the Boeing 747-800 and Airbus A380 as well as giant freighters like AN124 and AN225. This expansion was quite timely as it allowed the airport to receive Etihad Airways flights in December 2014 when severe fog caused the temporary shutdown of Abu Dhabi Airport.
Sharjah International is regarded by some as a regional airport since it serves the important demographic of the Middle East and South Asia with carriers such as Pakistan’s PIA and Air India in addition to Egypt Air and Saudi Airlines. It is also the only airport in the UAE that currently serves the Syrian community with Syrian Air still operating despite ceasing operations from other airports.
However, the advent of Qatar Airways’ daily flights to Sharjah with its vast network of 150 destinations was a gamechanger as it proved that there is appetite for international long haul travel from Sharjah Airport. In the past fortnight, ‘Doha News’ reported that the authorities in the UAE and Qatar have come to an air services agreement to limit the number of flights Qatar Airways can operate to Sharjah along with Abu Dhabi airport.
This move presents an opportunity for Etihad Airways to offer services and meet growing demand from the urban area around Sharjah Airport.
Although Sharjah airport is only 155 kilometres from Abu Dhabi airport, unanticipated traffic conditions make journey planning quite challenging. Additionally, it is not uncommon for airlines to operate services from major cities in addition to their national hubs. For instance Germany’s Lufthansa, which is based in Frankfurt, operates flights from cities such as Stuttgart which is around 200 kilometres away.
Sharjah’s GDP of around $25 billion (Dh91.8 bilion) is the size of US state of Vermont, Uganda and El Salvador and around 20 per cent lower than that of Bahrain, Cameroon and Paraguay. Its population is around 1.4 million people with a GDP per capita of $28,700 in 2015, according to Standards and Poor’s. However, the urban demographic is significantly larger if one takes into account surrounding areas such as Ajman’s population of 263,000 and ‘Old Dubai’s’ population of around 500,000, according to government statistics.
The UAE’s economy thrives on competition. For instance, following Dubai’s pioneering move to open the Jebel Ali Free Zone in 1985, free zones proliferated across the UAE and yet Jebel Ali keeps growing. Should Etihad consider operating out of Sharjah, it would add another layer to this dynamic UAE industry.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a UAE-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter on @sultanalqassemi.