x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Serious fun in the air at Al Bateen

The three-day Abu Dhabi Air Expo is for everyone who likes messing about in flying machines, but it also marks the emirate as a key player in a fast-growing aviation and strategic sector.

Business and pleasure: the Middle East is expected to be a hub for business aviation estimated to be worth more than $1 billion by 2018. Above, visitors tour Dubai's international airshow in November. Nikhil Monteiro / Reuters
Business and pleasure: the Middle East is expected to be a hub for business aviation estimated to be worth more than $1 billion by 2018. Above, visitors tour Dubai's international airshow in November. Nikhil Monteiro / Reuters

Next Tuesday, the Abu Dhabi Air Expo, the first, and so far, the only general aviation exhibition in the Middle East, throws its doors open at Al Bateen Executive Airport.

The three-day event is ostensibly "intended for owners, pilots, enthusiasts and professionals in the general aviation field" - a sort of carnival for all those who want to go messing about in flying machines; from helicopters and gliders, to tiny turboprop flying coupes or luxurious, upholstered jet-propelled drawing rooms.

This is an event for people who want to sell aircraft, learn to fly them, and even for those who want to jump out of them — with the aid of parachutes of course.

Fun for everyone from the flaky to the fabulously wealthy.

But the exhibition also marks Abu Dhabi as a key hub in a fast-growing aviation segment that links the West to the powerhouses of South East Asia. Behind all the fun, it is about the business-aviation market.

In a paper last March to the US National Business Aviation Association's 38th Annual International Operators Conference - one of the global showcases for the industry - Ali Al Naqbi, the chairman of the Middle East Business Aviation Association, forecast impressive growth for the region.

The number of business aircraft was expected to rise from the current 453 to 1,330 by 2019, and the number of business aircraft movements to jump from the current 110,000 to 160,000 by the end of this year. He valued business aviation in the region at US$493 million (Dh1.8bn) and predicted it would grow to more than $1bn by 2018.

It is against this background that the Abu Dhabi Air Expo takes place.

Yousif Hassan Al Hammadi,the chairman of the organising committee and deputy general manager of Al Bateen Executive Airport, is keen to play up the leisure potential of promoting general aviation.

"Most of the year the skies are clear here," he says. He also wants to poach the private pilot licence business from Florida, which also boasts sunny year-round skies.

Skydiving clubs and paragliding are also mentioned. "The Abu Dhabi Tourist Authority is one of our main sponsors", Mr Al Hammadi adds.

But once again after the play comes the more serious side.

"Al Bateen is in a strategic location. We are the best airport to serve private business aviation in the Middle East," says Mr Al Hammadi.

The business aviation world appears to agree.

Last week, DhabiJet, Al Bateen airport's fixed-based operator (FBO) - a provider of fuelling and other services to aircraft, and amenities for flight crews and passengers - made the top five in the European Business Air News FBO survey. For the past 20 years, the magazine has asked aircraft operators to rate FBOs on their facilities, services, staff and value for money.

This year it rated Al Bateen's DhabiJet FBO at number four in the world, making it the highest ranked FBO in the Middle East and one of just two FBOs in the Middle East to make the top 20 ahead of many bigger and long-established international brands.

The magazine's survey reflects Al Bateen's own findings. An in-house survey of visiting crew and VIP passengers ranked DhabiJet's services 9.28 out of 10 in overall satisfaction.

"In our first year of operation [with the new executive terminal] we were hoping to make the top 20", says Mr Al Hammadi, "But we made the top five."

Al Bateen's accomplishment follows a record year last year when overall commercial aviation movements rose 11 per cent compared with 2010, and there was a more than 50 per cent increase in visiting business aviation traffic, registering 8,775 commercial aircraft movements. The airport also attracted 124 first-time international business aviation customers.

Mr Al Hammadi's varied customers include royalty and Formula One drivers, all of them people who do not want to wait in queues, either on the ground or in the air. It is a clientele that is starting to grow again.

After the 2008 global downturn, the executive-jet industry suffered. The Canadian plane manufacturer Bombardier says: "The business-jet industry was clearly reminded of its cyclical nature when, in 2009, the precipitous and rapid decline of the demand resulted in cancellations exceeding gross orders."

Today, Bombardier adds, "the business-aircraft industry's market has turned the corner and is gaining momentum. Most key business jet indicators are showing signs of improvement. Sales of used aircraft are rising to pre-downturn levels.

"Signs of a market recovery are plenty, and it is expected that business-aircraft market deliveries will return to growth in 2012."

And nowhere more so than in the Middle East, says Bombardier in its influential commercial aircraft Market Forecast 2011-2030.

"Stimulated by a sustained economic growth, business aviation has been expanding fast in the Middle East, from 140 business aircraft in the region in 2004, to a total fleet of 380 at the end of 2010.

"Against the global backdrop of economic turmoil, the Middle East remains a strong market for business aviation. High prices for the region's oil exports, long distances between its major cities, and mediocre surface transport all help to support the business aviation industry, as does the fact that scheduled airlines services in the region tend to focus more on long-haul routes than on shorter ones."

Bombardier says its 20-year forecast predicts 24,000 business jet deliveries worth $626bn of revenue, with the worldwide business-jet fleet expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.8 per cent from 14,700 aircraft in 2010 to about 30,900 aircraft by 2030, net of retired aircraft.

In comparison it says the Middle East's 2010 fleet of 380 business jets will grow to 1,415 aircraft by 2030 with a fleet growth CAGR of about 7 per cent.

At the Abu Dhabi Air Expo, meanwhile, those who have a spare $53m can buy Embraer's Lineage 1000, a 19-seater, five-cabin plane with a bigger internal space than many studio apartments in Abu Dhabi.

On the other hand the Embraer Phenom 100 could be yours for just $4m, but that does not include maintenance, fuelling, or keeping the fridge full.

However, these days you do not have to buy an executive jet to enjoy the experience. Many operators offer leases, and there is even the aviation world's equivalent of timeshare, where you buy an annual option for a number of flying hours, summon an aircraft, and can fly until your hours run out.

dblack@thenational.ae

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