Expanding Expansion

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Officials at the Sharjah International Airport recently announced that passenger numbers have increased so much that the airport, now becoming a major rival to the airports in Dubai and Abu Dhabi for regional flights, needs yet another round of expansion work.

Last year, a little over 3m passengers passed through the airport. A 36% increase over the previous year, this was mainly the result of the arrival of Air Arabia, the region's largest budget airline, which uses the airport as its base of operations.

The director-general of Sharjah International Airport, Ghanem Al Hajri, stated that to handle an increasing passenger load, airport authorities are seeking to raise $500m in debt to finance either expansion of the current terminal or a second terminal building and a new runway. "We are considering whether to raise this money through bank loans or a sukuk [Islamic bond]," Al Hajri told media.

Meanwhile, as part of an overall airport modernisation programme, new computer equipment is being added to support 105 check-in counters and workstations. This is expected to maximise the airport's terminal space and will reduce the need for additional dedicated check-in facilities.

The new expansion plan comes just a year after the completion of another $62m upgrade that was finished in July 2006. The project, carried out by the construction firm Saudi Binladin Group, increased the size of the airport fourfold and raised its capacity to 8m passengers. However, it was clear even before the work was completed this would be inadequate to meet the rise in airport traffic.

Even more impressive than the growth in the airport and visitor numbers has been the rapid rise of Air Arabia, which saw its passenger volume increase by 58% to 1.23m in the first half of 2007. Airline officials said the carrier expects to carry 4.5m passengers a year by 2010, compared with 1.6m passengers in 2006.

Established in 2003, Air Arabia is jointly owned by the Sharjah Civil Aviation Department (60%) and the Sharjah Airport Authority (40%) and is a member of the Arab Air Carriers Organisation. Air Arabia flies from Sharjah to a number of destinations in the Middle East, North Africa, West Asia and the Indian sub-continent. Currently serving 37 routes, the airline is rapidly expanding the number of routes it flies with the latest new service flying to Bangalore four times weekly.

The airline has become the primary mode of transportation for migrant workers travelling from India to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and for tourists on short weekend trips.

It is this demand for inexpensive air travel that has turned the airport into the third busiest airport in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) region after Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Air passenger growth in the Gulf is by no means isolated to Sharjah. Air transport is booming across the region thanks to surging oil revenues, which have been the catalyst for rapid economic growth. Passenger traffic within the six Arab states in the GCC rose 12.8% to more than 109m passengers in 2006, well above the international average of 4.9%, according to the Arab Air Carriers Organisation. Gulf countries have embarked on major projects to build and expand their airports, capitalising on significant oil-generated surpluses and an ideal geographic location. Collectively, more than $38bn is being spent on these projects.

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