TBY talks to Mohammed A. Ahli, Director General of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, on the development of Dubai as a global air hub.
TBY How has the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA) been developing its strategy in recent years?
MOHAMMED A. AHLI The strategy we prepared will allow us to separate service providers from the regulator. After having several meetings with all stakeholders, this strategy was prepared and approved by the Executive Office. We are planning to go through with this policy, which defines the expansion of facilities and infrastructure to meet the projected growth in the Emirate of Dubai. It has been designed to ensure the hub status of Dubai and to make it the aviation capital of the world. Emirates Airlines is purchasing a larger number of “superjumbo” A380s, and we are building Concourse 3 and 4 to accommodate these aircraft. Dubai Airport will reach a capacity of 90 million by 2018. Al Maktoum Airport, with five runways, is being built to accommodate us to operate from both airports giving us a capacity of 160 million passengers an year.
What factors have led to the successful rapid evolution of Dubai as an international transit and travel hub?
Since the beginning, Dubai Airport has applied an open-skies policy. The main obstacle was in persuading other states to adopt it. Many airports in the Gulf are now applying this policy, and we have agreements with almost all of Europe. We have something even more with the US; the “seventh freedom” has allowed cargo carriers to fly without returning to their point of origin. This means companies can do business and travel on. This is very good for cargo carriers like FedEx and DHL. They are both coming to Dubai without going back to the US. National carriers can do the same when flying to the US. We have an open-skies policy with almost all of the Pacific and Asian civil aviation groups and agreements with nearly two-thirds of the countries in Africa. Every country is working to implement policies such as ours. In order to build businesses, an open-skies system should be embraced. By the year 2018 we aim to handle 90 million passengers. That is when we will have to move to Al Maktoum Airport. Currently, we handle over 50 million passengers per year, and by the end of 2012 we expect 56 million people to pass through our airport. Looking at the statistics, we are fourth in the world in terms of carrying international passengers. Some of the largest airports are very heavy in handling international passengers; we, on the other hand, handle international passengers exclusively. Our contribution to Dubai’s GDP is 28%, creating 250,000 jobs. By the year 2020, the aviation sector is expected to create 375,000 jobs directly and indirectly, contributing 32% of GDP.
What is the next step in terms of expanding the Emirate’s reach to different destinations?
We already have connections from East to West and North to South and currently our reach extends to over 200 destinations with almost 160 aircraft, growing by two planes per month. The major players are Emirates and flydubai, and through them we have connections to and from almost every city and country in the world. We offer 18 flights per day to the UK, excluding services provided by British Airways. We also have 85 flights per week to Australia. Every two or three months we open up two new destinations in response to growing demand. Emirates Airlines has been expanding very rapidly, and the team operating the company is very dynamic. In Dubai, it is your responsibility to succeed. The leaders here are very flexible, and they always give people a chance; anyone who fails has only himself to blame.
Why was the role of the DCAA realigned to remove responsibility for managing the airport?
As a government establishment, we had no limited liability. The DCAA was obliged to handle and deal with these issues. We felt there should be an agreement with a different party to secure a limited liability, “just in case.” We are part of the government, and the system was presenting a conflict of interest between being a service provider and a regulator. Moreover, European and US airlines did not appreciate that system. Previously, I felt I was wearing two hats; one was running the airport, and the other was monitoring the regulatory side. Now I am not involved in the operations side or service providers’ work. Instead, we are now a regulatory authority making sure everything is operating in compliance with international standards, which is working smoothly.
We have also been entrusted with the task of formulating a strategy, which was drafted in collaboration with other companies and organizations such as flydubai, Emirates, duty-free zones, customs, immigration, Dubai Airports, and the police. Everyone is a partner and a stakeholder and the strategy has now been approved. We hope that by 2020 Dubai will be the number one aviation capital of the world—second place is not acceptable.
What are the main challenges you face for the further development of the industry?
The challenge that lies in front of us is in air space design, where we face many internal and external obstacles. Congestion in airspace is the biggest threat to our growth. The DCAA is working to overcome these challenges through discussions with the other emirates. The internal problems are simply technical issues that need to be addressed. The DCAA has a committee in place to look into this. We also maintain very good relations with the other emirates. The external issues may take a little more time as it they need to be resolved at the federal UAE level. However, working together is the only way forward to solve this issue. We are optimistic that we can attain a European-style control that will function in the Gulf and Middle East. We hope that in the near future we will be able to unify our air space, which is very important as we seek to evolve.
How have you continued to attract airlines to Dubai?
We may be the first airport in the world that responds to a request for landing and operations within half an hour, while other airports take a month or two. According to bilateral agreements, we are required to reply within 60 days. However, we need only 30 minutes to scrutinize the required aircraft documents and to approve a request. We work 24 hours a day to serve our customers. This is very helpful, and airlines have no excuse not to come to Dubai. This has been a standard operation since I joined in 1966.
How is the shifting political landscape in the Middle East impacting the local aviation industry?
The political circumstances in the region have affected our industry for the better. There were only a few governments that had accepted an open-skies policy, but we always promoted the concept to Middle Eastern politicians when they discussed unity and nationality. These leaders talk about unifying and becoming brothers, and I largely agree with these ideals. However, if am not allowed to enter their country, why should I join any unions or region-wide organizations? In the wake of the Arab Spring, I believe that this mentality is changing.
There are many advantages and opportunities waiting in the wings. Many governments are protecting their own airlines, but we recently engaged in negotiations with Egypt and saw encouraging progress. We came to an agreement faster than ever, and I am sure that once the dust settles we will see more and more open skies in the Gulf. I believe that this is a very positive thing.
© The Business Year