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Challenges ahead for airports

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

(Editorial published in Aviation Business ME Magazine - Issue September 2013)

The challenges ahead for global airports: Airports need to invest in infrastructure development to address congestion issues quickly

It is no secret that America and European’s airport infrastructure, along with those of many other countries, is aging, and that funding has been insufficient to renovate or replace it. Facts: Europe’s airports are facing a capacity crunch with air traffic in Europe that will nearly double by 2030. Yet Europe will not be in a position to meet a large part of this demand due to a shortage of airport capacity and available (State-) financing. An exception that proves the rule is obviously the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region where impressive new airports are flourishing, in particular Hamad International Airport in Doha, Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai and a few new coming in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Building new infrastructure is not the only way if we consider the continuous impressive development at Dubai International airport, the coming new midfield terminal at Abu Dhabi International or the new terminal at Muscat International airport. Engineers of the 21st century face the formidable challenge of modernizing the fundamental structures that support the overall airline industry.

GCC Countries are pioneer in the way to consider the airport model as not only a runway where aircraft take off and land but as en engine for national economic growth. They understood before anybody else the business potential to have 85% of the world’s population within 7500 nm or 5.5 billion people within 8 hours growing to 7.8 billion by 2020. The first results are already there if we consider that more than 80 million passengers are transiting via United Arab Emirates Hubs, a country with an overall population of about 8 millions only… Those Hubs are becoming the biggest transit point between the West and the East and the recent major code sharing deals and alliances between flagships carriers like Emirates and Qantas, Etihad and Air France-KLM or Qatar Airways joining One World Alliance in 2013 -2014 are not coincidences. More than that, they will transfer the operational hub of those legacy carriers to the Middle East (as example Qantas moving his Far East hub from Singapore to Dubai).

As state above, airports are not only the gateways to cities where passengers are departing and arriving but also tremendous engine for national economic growth. Local economies that have benefited from successful Hubs have seen increased level of employment, greater number of visitors spending more money locally and attractiveness of developing business. Airports are magnet for commerce and trade; they play an important role in the location of corporate and regional headquarters, service companies, manufacturing site and aerospace clusters. Considering only the U.A.E., today the aviation sector contribute to 22% of GDP to reach 28 Billion US$  per year and utilizing 19% of the UAE workforce and that trend is growing. Talking about the workforces, it is also the capacity available to develop and build airport leaders. Accredited training program provided to qualify crew are widely available, but international accepted program to train airport professionals are lacking. Developing vocations and training are investments on the long run and one of the key legacy of late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan: ‘Education is like a lantern which lights your way in a dark alley’.

Coming back to other related challenges ahead, the formula for success as airport of choice for Airlines and Passengers is not easy to obtain sound economic development results, and since the latest economic crisis, the budget allocated to infrastructure development it’s not on government priority list anymore due to the high rising cost of building such facilities. In some countries we can even observe decommissioning of runways and closing airport (- part of). Moreover, some experts are raising questions about the necessity to build new facility instead of expanding or upgrading existing ones to serve a growing market if we consider carefully one of today biggest challenges for airports. To be able to offer modern structures with hassle free experience for the passenger to enhance non aeronautical revenue for the companies/group that are running boutiques, shops and airport services. The other biggest challenge for those airports is to properly manage the airspace and traffic rights. Currently, Middle East carriers are facing in their own hub Air Traffic congestion: basically they are victims of their own success… It is frequent that aircrafts from Emirates, Etihad or Qatar Airways are struggling to obtain slots to start and land on their respective airports, often those flights can easily hold for 30-40 before getting the permission with impact on the fuel burn (costs). We will not mention here the particular difficult situation of the General Aviation in that particular matter where the only solution for those VIP customers is to have dedicated general aviation airport similar to Al Bateen executive airport in Abu Dhabi, a unique success so far to be duplicated in the region. Solving all those challenges will be on one hand highly technical to manage the airspace or the high passenger flux,  and on the other hand requesting to be complementary each other, in particular between the main hubs and the other airports requiring mainly procedures improvements without the need to build a new facility. No doubt at all that the region will keep the lead in providing innovative solutions to the industry, the recent Global Airport Leaders Forum held in Dubai was a very good supporting think thank…

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