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Sharjah 2015 | TRANSPORT | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to HE Ali Salim Al Midfa, Chairman of Sharjah Airport Authority, on managing exponential growth in passenger numbers and competition with regional airports.

HE Ali Salim Al Midfa
BIOGRAPHY
HE Ali Salim Al Midfa has been the Chairman of Sharjah Airport Authority since 2014. He is considered to be part of the dynamic and active young leaders of the Emirate of Sharjah, having joined the Sharjah Airport Authority back in 1996, and gradually worked up through the ranks, holding posts such as Administrative and Commercial Director, Airport Director, and then Director General. He enjoys over 18 years of extensive aviation experience, and besides his responsibilities at Sharjah Airport he is a member of the Executive Council of Sharjah. He is also the Chairman of Sharjah Aviation Services.

What strategies has the Sharjah Airport Authority implemented to foster the exponential growth in passenger numbers and cargo tonnage that has taken place over the past decade, and how would you describe future growth plans?

The growth is the result of several factors that are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. First, the attractiveness of Sharjah as a business and tourist destination, coupled with the economic growth of the UAE, is a key element that has contributed to the airport's growth. The Emirate is strategically located and is one of the safest destinations for business and leisure travellers alike. Secondly, efficient procedures and excellent services have boosted its attractiveness. Thirdly, new routes and increased frequencies by existing carriers have been instrumental in driving growth. Air Arabia, in particular, has provided a key stimulus to the sector by offering low-cost travel, which has increased demand. As a result, Air Arabia expanded its operations and the number of flights it runs. We are expecting the growth of passenger numbers and cargo volumes to continue for the coming years. Sharjah Airport Authority has also selected the engineering, construction, and projects management company Bechtel to design a new master plan for the airport. The company will conduct short-term and long-term analyses of the airport's future needs. Further studies for large-scale expansion projects are currently underway and are expected to be announced soon to maximize the use of land at the airport, and come up with new facilities for both passengers and cargo services. Running parallel with the exponential growth of Sharjah Airport we are meeting the demand of airport users by increasing existing capacity in various areas, including check-in counters, additional boarding gates and growing the numbers of human resources, utilising the latest innovative technologies and equipment to enhance the passenger experience. Furthermore, HH Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhamad Al Qassimi, UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, launched the new, $136 million runway in Sharjah International Airport in October 2014, which has increased our capacity significantly.

How would you describe the strategic advantages of Sharjah International Airport versus other airports in the region?

There are many competitive advantages at Sharjah International Airport. Some are related to its strategic geographic location, while others are the result of operational strategies such as direct approach for flights and shorter taxiing distances, both reflected in reduced fuel burn on ground and less 'holding' to land. Other advantages are more commercial, resulting from our competitive rates in various airport services. Sharjah Airport International Free Zone's proximity to the airport, Sharjah's two seaports, ongoing projects to develop the airport infrastructure, the free trade atmosphere with the Open Sky policy, and transparent cargo procedures also contribute positively towards Sharjah Airport's competitiveness. I am an advocateof cooperation between the UAE's airports, rather than competition. We should be complementing other airports, as each airport has advantages that make it a more viable choice for a particular passenger. Our airport is more convenient for short-haul passengers because of our emphasis on faster processes. We are capitalizing on this, and try to not exceed the 20-minute gap between the check-in counter and aircraft boarding. The increasing number of passengers, however, requires Sharjah Airport to be more efficient, so working 'smarter, not harder,' ensuring faster boarding and alighting times for passengers is maintained

How do you assess the future of the aviation sector in the UAE, and what does this mean for your organization?

Within five years, the UAE will undergo a huge development to cope with UAE vision 2021, and will host major events like Expo 2020, which need a lot of investments and planning. The aviation sector is one of these sectors that will expand to meet the high demand; all national and foreign carriers have plans to expand. As one of the most important sectors of GDP, we should be prepared for the increase of passengers and cargo. We expect the growth to continue, as the demand is high. After this development, we should be looking into attracting long-haul airlines to the airport, which is an area in which we see growing demand. I assume that one day we will start operating long-haul flights, but only when we are either ready to handle more flights in peak hours, or when long-haul airlines are willing to operate in off-peak hours.

What are your organization's expectations for the coming year?

We expect to continue with our annual growth as forecast. This will entail an increase compared to 2014, when our passenger numbers were boosted by 700,000 passengers that we temporarily took over from Dubai International Airport due to continued construction over there. We may not retain all of those passengers this year, whilst some have recognized the attractiveness and convenience of a more non-congested airport, fully fledged with facilities and modern amenities, and our own growth should see us reach the target of 9.5 million.