Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 27 May 2019

How Soviet planes are behind the rise of Fujairah Airport

The only facility on the UAE's eastern coast seeks to carve out a niche repairing Soviet cargo planes

A Russian Ilyushin 76, a Soviet-era workhorse which still forms the backbone of many cargo fleets. AFP Photo
A Russian Ilyushin 76, a Soviet-era workhorse which still forms the backbone of many cargo fleets. AFP Photo

Fujairah Airport's days of flying under the radar could soon be over as efforts to transform the facility gather pace.

Foundations have been laid for a new control tower, which has a striking design in the shape of a falcon, while construction on the runway is set to start soon.

At least 10 per cent of the work has been completed at the country's only airport on the eastern coast.

The revamp is being funded by the Federal Government in collaboration with Abu Dhabi Airports company. A cost has not been revealed but the airport will be able to accommodate some of the largest planes in the world - such as the A380 - when the upgrade is finished.

“If you wander around the airport, you can now see a considerable amount of activity,” Charles Hajdu, acting general manager, told The National.

The development comes as Fujairah seeks to carve out a niche in maintaining and repairing large cargo jets.

Charles Hajdu, acting general manager of Fujairah Airport. Antonie Robertson / The National
Charles Hajdu, acting general manager of Fujairah Airport. Antonie Robertson / The National

There are no commercial services at Fujairah and a Polish charter ferrying tourists to the emirate ended last year. The check-in desks are still quiet when compared with the hubs at Abu Dhabi and Dubai. And with average yearly passenger movements in the 20,000s for the three years up to 2017, it is not hard to see why this route is being explored.

The airport is a popular holding spot for freighters such as the Ilyushin 76, a Soviet-era workhouse that still forms the backbone of many cargo charter companies because of its ability to land on remote, unpaved airfields in Africa and the Middle East.

Hundreds of Ilyushin 76s land at Fujairah every year while in between jobs. “That’s our bread and butter in terms of freighter aircraft,” said Mr Hajdu.

“They come here because of slot restrictions or congestion at other airports. Our airspace is relatively quiet and we have space so they can park here,” he said.

Fujairah Airport as it looks today. 
Fujairah Airport as it looks today.

At least six companies operate at Fujairah carrying out repairs to aircraft at the airport. Hawker Pacific, for example, modifies helicopters such as adding iPad ports or air conditioning, while Russian company Volga-Dnepr carries out work to the Soviet craft.

“I see this business growing,” said Mr Hajdu. “We’ve seen one or two new operators base themselves here simply because of the need to access a runway.”

It may seem strange that a Soviet aircraft that first flew in 1971 remains an important player but they are tough, reliable and hard to replace. “They are still filling a need that can’t be satisfied by other planes. We could be looking at the last 10 to 15 years of them being used. But we said that ten years ago.”

Aside from the cargo repairs, Fujairah today is used chiefly to train pilots through its flying school, for diversions and by the military. The emirate is strategically important. Its port is undergoing a huge expansion, an oil pipeline connects to Abu Dhabi, while Adnoc are building a massive oil storage facility there. Etihad Rail is also planning to build a link to the city, while a spur to the airport has not been ruled out.

Other developments at Fujairah include the removal of some of the older Soviet era-planes abandoned at the airport over the past few years. In January a plane was craned over the fence and shipped to Bahrain where it will be sunk as an artificial reef for divers.

Aviation experts, meanwhile, also welcomed the progress. Alan Peaford, editor of Arabian Aerospace, said the work was not before time. “There is development at the port and the lengthening of the runway will add to the advantages for Fujairah as a freight hub for the UAE as a whole. A capable airport will only strengthen this,” he said.

Fujairah Airport's new control tower is designed in the shape of a falcon. Courtesy Fujairah Airport
Fujairah Airport's new control tower is designed in the shape of a falcon. Courtesy Fujairah Airport

“The UAE also needs to extend its general aviation activities. Fujairah has a long record of welcoming general aviation and development of the airport could see more investment in this area.”

Updated: April 22, 2019 02:37 PM

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