Barry Mansfield: The Sharjah expansion has been described as a four-fold project. What has been achieved so far and what is your final vision for 2015?
Dr Ghanem Al-Hajri: By next year we will have additional parking positions for passenger aircraft and cargo aircraft, plus four parking positions for general aviation. The airport will also have parking facilities for 800 vehicles. We are doing this gradually as business and demand increases.
Overall, the space and facilities at the airport are set to expand so that it will be four times larger. But, this is only the first stage of the expansion programme. We are already looking at further expansion for terminal capacity because our growth has been so substantial over the past two years. There has been a tremendous 36% growth in passenger traffic over the last year alone, partly because we are now the home base for the Middle East's first low-cost carrier, Air Arabia.
BM: To what extent has the increase in cargo traffic intensified pressure on Sharjah to expand?
GAH: Cargo traffic is also increasing, just not to the same extent as on the passenger side. We are concentrating more on the commercial activities within the airport. There will be an increased number of restaurants, hotels and health clubs. There will also be new departure and arrival lounges, a bigger duty free area, seating, coffee shops and a food court – as well as prayer areas for males and females (that's a stronger focus for us).
BM: How are the airport staff dealing with the changes as they are implemented?
GAH: I would say excellent customer service has been our forte at Sharjah and we ensure that our staff meets international standards through on-going training programmes. After all, we work in one of the fastest growing regions, so we need to be well equipped to meet the challenges of new technology and systems. Staff are the cornerstone of any organisation and we really benefit from the fact that the personnel at Sharjah bring such wide-ranging knowledge from major airports all over
BM: You must be happy that you've been able to get started with a minimum of bureaucracy?
GAH: We are really pleased that we are able to take immediate decisions and action on airport expansion. Because of the growth of the UAE economy, it's true that we have benefited from the availability of funds within the financial sector, as this has allowed us to just go ahead and concentrate on the building itself.
The initial 18-month project was financed by Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank and we are also thankful to His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi (the ruler of Sharjah) for his guidance, vision and care in the development of the airport from the time of inception. The challenge, of course, is that because we are growing so fast we require the facilities not soon, but today. The contractors are not always able to deliver what we need in time.
BM: Have you struggled to hit deadlines because of the extra traffic, and the demands that has placed on the airport?
GAH: There was a delay in the project by more than five months, unfortunately. During that period the traffic increase meant we had no choice but to reject some of that extra traffic, because we simply didn't have enough space available. There are a lot of procedures and mandates to be taken into consideration when operating and expanding and this also has the effect of reducing capacity.
BM: With traffic increasingly so rapidly, have you been forced to revise the scale of your expansion plans as you go along?
GAH: Yes, you can say that the airport's unprecedented growth in traffic has obliged airport authorities to constantly revise the 2015 plan. The initial budget for the project was $60m, but with the airport experiencing a 35%-40% increase in traffic on a monthly basis, the figure had to change in recognition of the fast-changing new requirements.
We are putting in extra space for aircraft and have received approval to build an extra terminal for business travellers. Also, we moved to incorporate plans for building a parallel lane for emergencies on the runway, with further expansion on the cargo side also factored into the equation.
Our completed master plan will take us to the year 2015 but, given the rapid rate of development and the demands of market forces, we are required to update those plans every two years. In October 2007 we worked out that we will need to raise $500m to see through our vision and at the moment we're considering whether to raise this money through bank loans or through a sukuk (the Arabic name for a financial certificate).
BM: Is Sharjah in a position to handle the increase in traffic if it continues at its current rate up to and beyond 2015? Or, is it likely that the authorities will look to other airports to help ease the burden?
GAH: Within Sharjah we have ample space for future expansion. We have few limitations space-wise. You could even go so far as to say we are set up for the next 50 years! Crucially, there is plenty of additional room for another runway and for additional terminals. So, when the time comes, we're ready for that.
Within the UAE all the other airports are expanding as well, due to the surge in traffic they are experiencing. There's a lot of development going on. Even though we compete with each other, in a sense, we complement each other in terms of the service we provide.
I think it's necessary to highlight the importance of all the local airports as they have played a vital role in the continued economic growth of the United Arab Emirates.
A low-cost gateway to the Middle East
New investment to the tune of $135m is backing Sharjah's 2015 master plan to upgrade, expand and modernise both passenger and freight facilities in a bid to establish Sharjah as the Middle East's most popular airport.
Sharjah International Airport was built in 1932 to serve as a stop-over route for British flights on their way to India and destinations located further east and had the distinction of being the UAE's first airport. Today, it is served by more than 40 scheduled airlines flying to nearly 250 worldwide destinations, while 70 other airlines use the airport on seasonal long haul routes.
In addition, since launching Air Arabia, the first in a new wave of budget airlines in the Middle East, the airport has reported a 40% monthly rise in passenger traffic.
Representing the largest air-cargo hub in the Middle East and Africa, state-of-the-art facilities have made the airport's freight services famous. Lufthansa operates its second-largest cargo hub after Frankfurt out of Sharjah International Airport, with 360 flights and more than 48,000t of cargo movement a month.
The adjacent Sharjah Airport international free zone (SAIF zone) features pre-built warehouses, container parking, storage space, executive offices and leased land for unrestricted development. Sharjah's geographical position and its status as the commercial nerve centre of the UAE are additional attractions that have drawn the 2,300 companies now operating out of SAIF zone.