Having taken up the reins as General Manager of Al Bateen Executive Airport, Steve Jones is busy implementing ADAC’s plan to realise this airport’s full potential as a dedicated business aviation base. Jo Murray reports on what is turning out to be a very successful year for this Abu Dhabi city centre based airport
Al Bateen has been through several incarnations. First it was the original Abu Dhabi International Airport. As the new international airport came on stream, Al Bateen became a military base and now it has been handed back to civil control with the military operations eventually migrating to a new base.
This has left a very sizeable footprint on which to develop a business-aviation-only airport. The primary infrastructure is already in place, including a 3,200m long (40m wide) runway. Most of the airport buildings are arranged across one side of the site. A collection of hangars, engineering workshops and a commercial-style terminal building have been inherited from the airport’s previous incarnations. There is also a VIP terminal building as well as a collection of offices. One of the offices blocks is occupied by the Gulf Centre for Aviation Studies (GCAS), the training arm of ADAC which offers broad Airport and Aviation training modules to promote best practice in the aviation industry in the region.
At 2.2 square km, the land allocated to the airport is more than adequate for all Al Bateen’s plans going, confirms Jones. “We have large areas of apron, large parking areas – in fact we have parking for about 100 business jets,” he points out. “We also have land available on which to build new hangars– we have plenty of land to develop the airport going forward.”
The airport itself is located inside the capital city boundaries and serves governmental, business and leisure sectors at close proximity to passengers’ ultimate destinations. “We are right in the middle of the place to be,” says Jones. “The strategic aim is to develop a business aviation centre which fits well with the development of Abu Dhabi.”
In terms of enhancing the infrastructure and its equipment, Jones points out that the airport is already under the radar control of the international airport – but the decision was taken last year to install an instrument landing system (ILS) too. “Because this was an ex-military facility, we needed to elevate some of the infrastructure – refurbish it effectively – in line with our strategy to be a very high quality business aviation airport,” says Jones. “We have spent a lot of money on the rehabilitation of aprons, taxiways and the runway to get them to a very high standard. We have also improved a lot of the offices and buildings.”
In fact, to date, $170 million has been spent on the ILS, runway refurbishment, hangar refurbishment and other projects. “We’ve spent a considerable amount of money modernising, refurbishing and preparing the airport, ready for its place as a dedicated business airport,” says Jones, “but we’ve got further improvement plans. Hangars are progressively being transferred from military to the civil side and our plan is to refurbish them and perhaps replace the hangar doors. We’ve got more work to do on aprons and runways as well.”
Infrastructure aside, Al Bateen will also play host to service-providers as well as acting as a service-provider itself. So where does Jones draw the lines in terms of service provision? “We are developing a model whereby, in the first instance, to make sure that the airport has a very high quality FBO (including the new crew facility which we are in the process of building) we have created DhabiJet, which is a dedicated FBO/handling service, operated by Al Bateen Executive Airport. We have brought in experts from established FBOs and we have set the standard for very high quality services. These go hand in glove with the other facilities that exist at the airport,” says Jones.
“Strategically, once we get DhabiJet established, and in partnership with our other base charter operators, we will get the volume to a certain level – maybe in two years’ time – when we may then open up the airport to other FBO operators who will offer choice to customers. If we get the right level of traffic volume, I think this could be a three-FBO model,” he adds. In the longer term, the concept of DhabiJet could also be taken to other business aviation airports
Jones confirms that the airport itself does not plan to offer maintenance services. “We have base operators with MRO capability here already and Jet Aviation (already present in Dubai) is opening a support office here too. We have close working relationships with these base tenants and we believe that, through the combination of tenants, the airport will offer a full suite of line support here,” he says. “There is an evolving MRO capability but we don’t intend to get into MRO ourselves.” The airport wishes to attract many aviation companies to the airport which is expected to lead to a thriving and competitive support environment.
To date, air traffic growth at Al Bateen has already been remarkable. The executive airport announced a 25% increase in aircraft movements in April 2011 compared with April 2010. The rise for the first quarter compared with last year was 18%.
When asked about the setting of comparatively low landing fees at Al Bateen, Jones says: “We certainly want to be positioned very competitively. We don’t want to be anything other than the best value place to go particularly for tech stops,” adding that having comparatively low landing fees is the icing on the cake at Al Bateen – it is not the main driver for growth. “The growth is driven predominantly by new customers – and landing at Al Bateen is simply very easy.”
The hike in traffic will also be aided by new base operators joining the Al Bateen community; the latest being Rotana Jet Aviation which commenced private jet operations at the beginning of April 2011 with a Gulfstream G450. The company has committed to leasing a large hangar at Al Bateen, where it will develop and expand its scope of services to offer line maintenance and other technical works. In addition to corporate/private air charters, Rotana Jet offers a range of specialist aviation services, including aircraft management and consultancy.
Adding to the attraction of Al Bateen Executive Airport is Free Zone status which will make it easier for international companies to set up businesses in the area. This will come into effect in early 2012. “To be ready for that we need a good supply of high quality offices – and we’re doing a lot of refurbishment work at the moment on that. There is plenty of office stock here and it is being prepared for commercial use,” says Jones.
There are other plans on the agenda too. “We are supporting the development of executive in flight catering services here. We are in discussions with a very large catering group to set up a state-of-the-art executive & VIP catering facility. Linked to that we are developing retail – a retail centre with various shops, banks, car show rooms and a conference centre. We have buildings that could be used as hotels but the initial focus will be on retail and offices,” he says.
Commenting on the Middle East generally, Jones says that the patterns for business aviation growth in the Middle East in the short term is uncertain however the medium to long term the region will undoubtedly be one of the most important business aviation markets.. In relation to his airport, he says: “If you look at the growth in Abu Dhabi, it is very dynamic. My feeling is that Al Bateen’s growth is driven by our competitive position and our product. We have picked up some organic growth but our percentage growth is out of kilter with established airport operators.”
He concludes: “Therefore we must be winning market share.”