RAK airport braces for pilgrim season

Revenues to soar as up to 600 passengers pass through the hub each day on stopovers for Haj flights.

Ras al Khaimah International Airport is gearing up for a sharp increase in passenger traffic next month when airlines start using it as a stopover for Haj flights. The airport is expecting up to a dozen flights a day from local airlines and foreign operators from places such as Spain, India, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Indonesia to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage.

The season lasts two months and could reach a high of 600 passengers a day through the airport to Jeddah or Medina. The sharp rise in revenues will include those for the airport's catering unit. "Pilgrim flights are a major feature of this area and we are proud to handle it," said Roland Blaney, the chief executive of RAK airport. "It gives us a chance to see how good we are to handle pit stops like these."

While Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah are home to dense populations and rapidly expanding airlines, Northern Emirates airports have sought to develop their own niches. Along with Fujairah International Airport, RAK plans to develop new revenue from more cargo operations, aircraft maintenance facilities and demolition programmes. The airport is on "bit of a high right now" after plans by RAK Airways to relaunch the airline next month, Mr Blaney said.

The airline launched in 2007 but ended scheduled passenger services in 2008. That year, airport officials estimated the carrier had handled about 125,000 passengers, including with charter operations. RAK Airways and Oman Air plan to capitalise on Haj traffic with stopovers at the airport, Mr Blaney said. The airport is regularly used by about 10 passenger airlines, charter flight operators and cargo carriers.

For the summer season that has led to about eight take-offs and landings a day, although the hub has targeted 25 movements for the near future. All areas are being studied for expansion, Mr Blaney said. A long-term objective is to concentrate on Chinese tourists, and airport officials will make this market a particular focus when they travel to Vancouver next week for an airline route development conference.

Two air cargo operators have bases in Ras al Khaimah - HeavyLift Cargo Airlines and a second company called Airlift International. This sector is poised to grow further as the emirate markets itself as a cargo redistribution centre for the Afghan reconstruction effort. A summit on the subject is scheduled in the emirate for December. In Fujairah, Europe Aviation is building a US$25 million (Dh91.8m) maintenance facility. RAK airport has similar aims and has allocated space for companies to set up shop, Mr Blaney said.

It also hopes to attract companies for "end of life" disassembly of aircraft, he said. igale@thenational.ae