Executive jet facility set for Sharjah International

A British company wants to build a $15 million development to serve luxury travel market.

Sharjah International Airport's reputation as a centre for budget flights and air cargo could be upgraded, as a British company has announced plans for a multimillion-dollar facility for luxury business travel. GAMA Aviation said it would invest US$15 million (Dh55.09m) in a hangar facility to operate charter flights and run an aircraft maintenance business. The move could one day challenge the dominance of Dubai International Airport for executive jet travel.

The hangar planned by GAMA, at between 10,000 square metres and 12,000 sq metres, would be the first dedicated facility for business jets at Sharjah, said Marwan Khalek, the chief executive of GAMA. The plans come after GAMA was awarded a local air operator's certificate by federal authorities last month. "We're developing a hangar facility to provide some needed infrastructure in business aviation, as the ones in Dubai are saturated," Mr Khalek said.

Regional business travel experienced dramatic growth in the economic boom between 2004 and 2008 but slumped during the downturn, and some carriers said they had been pressured to operate flights at below cost. Despite this, the Middle East still fared better than Europe and the Americas. There are about 85 UAE registered business jets, according to the Middle East Business Aviation Association (MEBAA).

Dubai remains the most active hub for business travel in the UAE, with its Executive Flight Centre handling 6,060 arrivals and departures and 19,797 customers last year, according to Dubai Airports. The operator said it had a provision to build a business jet facility at the main passenger terminal of Al Maktoum International Airport, its second airport, which is due to open for freight services in June.

Dubai airport's success with business jets, commercial aeroplanes and air cargo has come at a cost as its airspace becomes congested in peak periods, causing some delays for business jet passengers. Abu Dhabi is already challenging Dubai's luxury travel market dominance with the opening of Al Bateen Executive Airport last year on Abu Dhabi Island. GAMA said its new facilities would offer wealthy UAE travellers yet another option.

"One of the problems facing [business jet passengers] is really access, so the more access they have the better," said Ali al Naqbi, the founding chairman of the MEBAA, based in Dubai. Mr al Naqbi welcomed the proposal for Sharjah and said other airports investing in these facilities meant the UAE was fast catching up with Saudi Arabia as the region's largest centre for business jet travel. GAMA is 33 per cent owned by GrowthGate Capital, a private equity fund based in Bahrain that includes Crescent Investments of Sharjah as an investor.

The aviation firm will manage three jets - a Bombardier 604, a 605 and an 850 - at its planned Sharjah facilities on behalf of other owners, including one belonging to Crescent's aviation unit. GAMA hopes to break ground on the facility in the next four to six months, and is looking to open in the second half of next year, Mr Khalek said. Before then, GAMA will lease a hangar from Sharjah airport to launch its operations.

Mr Khalek acknowledged the demand for executive travel had hit a deep trough, but said GAMA would not be distracted by short-term concerns. "We are in a blip. I've been in the business for 27 years and we are in it for the long term," he said. @Email:igale@thenational.ae