Interview: Ali Salim Al Midfa
What initiatives are being taken to improve facilities and the overall passenger experience?
ALI SALIM AL MIDFA: Passenger expectations continue to change, and airports worldwide have to balance offering new facilities and amenities with convenience, flexibility and a seamless travel experience. Passenger traffic at Sharjah International Airport (SIA) has continued to grow. Total passenger numbers increased to 11.4m in 2017, and this is expected to reach 12m in 2018. Meeting this growth will require improvements to facilities and infrastructure. To this end, we have launched a Dh1.5bn ($408.3m) five-year redevelopment strategy to increase capacity to 20m passengers annually by 2027. Construction of a new dedicated arrivals terminal, which will separate arrivals and departures areas, as well as work on the airport road network will begin in late 2018. This redevelopment will also enhance commercial space available in the terminal buildings, particularly retail options and dining outlets, as well as new office units and an expansion of holding lounges.
In addition, we are working to improve the management of passenger flows at the airport, especially during peak hours, by addressing bottlenecks and installing smart gates to reduce visa- and security-processing times for both arrivals and departures. Updates to flight information display systems will see layout changes and more information will be available in multiple languages. These measures will help streamline the passenger experience at the airport and further reduce average processing times, which are currently around 17 minutes from arrival to exit. Enhancing slot management will also ease passenger flows, and SIA now offers incentives such as reduced landing fees to encourage airlines to use off-peak slots.
To what extent can the growth of Sharjah’s air connectivity promote inbound tourism?
AL MIDFA: The UAE’s airports will play a crucial role in increasing visitor numbers to the country, but this is only part of the broader collaboration between the emirates to improve their tourism promotion strategy. SIA benefits from a strong regional network of destinations, with Sharjah already linked to 17 cities in India, and there are long-term plans to serve 13 destinations in the Russian Federation. Sharjah’s flag carrier, Air Arabia, has focused on developing a short- to medium-haul market with a maximum range of around 5.5 hours’ travel time. The region has a lot of potential for growth in the low-cost segment due to the launch of new carriers in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Oman, offering even more connections from Sharjah.
The number of destinations currently offered from the emirate means that the airport can act as a gateway for visitors to both the UAE and the region, but there are also opportunities for long-haul routes linking Sharjah to high-growth source markets, including East Asia and Russia. Air Arabia, for example, recently signed a lease agreement for new long-range Airbus A321neo aircraft for delivery in 2019, which will enable the carrier to add additional routes and continue to build on its position as a feeder airline.
How will the recent introduction of the UAE’s new airspace structure affect aviation growth?
AL MIDFA: UAE airspace is one of the busiest in the world, and the federal-level UAE General Civil Aviation Authority worked for several years to design the UAE Airspace Restructuring Project that was launched in December 2017. This new structure has increased the number of gateways, or waypoints, for individual airports, giving SIA its own pathways and holding points for traffic. It is the first airspace structuring system using performance-based navigation.
We expect this airspace management system to reduce congestion and average delay times, and further streamline aircraft traffic. This new system has been designed to increase airspace capacity and meet long-term growth forecasts for air travel in the region.
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