x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

RAK to spread its wings again

Airport hopes relaunch will be the beginning of its return to the days when holiday makers as well as cargo planes were frequent users.

"All we are trying to do is help the airport regain its old reputation as popular, light and easy," says Roland Blaney, the chief executive officer of the Ras al Khaimah International Airport.
"All we are trying to do is help the airport regain its old reputation as popular, light and easy," says Roland Blaney, the chief executive officer of the Ras al Khaimah International Airport.

RAS Al KhAIMAH // For the past year hulking Russian cargo planes and the military supply planes destined for Afghanistan have been its main patrons. But now RAK International Airport is hoping to relive the heydays of the 1990s, when it was at its busiest for passenger travel.

RAK Airways, the fourth national carrier of the UAE, will relaunch its services from the airport by the end of this year. It suspended flights in May 2009 due to the global recession, just three years after being launched. "All we are trying to do is help the airport regain its old reputation as popular, light and easy," said Roland Blaney, the CEO of RAK International Airport. "The airport is now used by a mixture of aircraft cargo to Afghanistan and charters."

The airport will continue its cargo services, mainly military cargo to Afghanistan, but has its eye on passenger travel. Future plans for the airport include a large cargo bunker so it can take A380s from Dubai. "So when Dubai says, 'get ready', we're ready," said Mr Blaney. In addition to Dubai's overflow, the airport will target Russian and Chinese carriers and charters from Germany and Scandinavia.

"We're looking to have two chartered flights a day in the winter months," said Mr Blaney. The 24 old aircraft parked at the airport, often left by entrepreneurs who hoped to run their own airlines but found it difficult due to tightening regulations, will either be broken down or sold. Alternatively, the airport will start tours of the old Russian aircraft for aviation enthusiasts. "One of the nice things about this airport is it's a really small staff," said Mr Blaney. "We look after everything."

This includes drilling for water on one side of the airport. "One of the things that we're pushing on is that an airport needs power and water. We're working with the local authorities on this," said Mr Blaney. The entire lighting system is also being replaced. Staff at the airport hope that the relaunch of RAK Airways will return the airport to its busiest passenger days in the 1990s. RAK Airport reported a 16 per cent increase in commercial traffic in 2008 from 2007 but the increase was not enough to support the new airline.

At one time, the airport was a sparse strip of land between the majestic Hajar mountains and the lush date gardens of Khatt. The airport still has its original 3,760 metre runway, which was often a catwalk for stray camels, who wandered in from neighbouring farms. Amongst his many responsibilities as motor transport manager, Mr Khairuddin Abbas had the job of corralling stray camels and chasing them out of the airport on its buggies. "Before, we used to see many camels, but now for more than one year I didn't see one here."

With the airport's modernisation, those camel days are long since past, he said. "In 12 years, the infrastructure has really evolved, the equipment has really improved but the people are fewer," said Mr Abbas. "I want to see RAK develop, I want to see many flights come to my airport. I hope that my day will come when I can see this." Madhavan Nair, the head of the electrical mechanical department, has worked at the airport since the first flight took off from there in 1976.

"At that time it was small, after that we made so many military expansions," said Mr Nair. "After 15 years Abu Dhabi attached some military camp." However, the airport was not used by the military in the 1990-91 Gulf War. In the 1990s, the airport saw a rise in passenger flights, mostly Russians "doing a lot of purchasing and going back to their country". "In the 1990s there was a lot business, but after that it was less," said Mr Nair. "They started to Kuwait and then it was to India. It went very well but the then passengers reduced."

The airport's early passengers were usually workers who were returning home for holidays, though the airport was not without its celebrated guests. "I remember the President of the UAE came, Sheikh Zayed, and other sheikhs and VIPs," he said. azacharias@thenational.ae