RAK Airport to draw new carriers

The sleepy northern emirate is hoping to draw in holiday tours and also encourage new feeder services.

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As Dubai and Abu Dhabi plan new multibillion-dollar airports, more modest plans are being drawn up in Ras al Khaimah (RAK), where officials say they will spend more than US$150 million (Dh550.5m) in the next 20 years to attract new cargo and passenger airlines. The sleepy northern emirate, home to the second-smallest international airport in the country after Al Ain, has traditionally relied on heavy industry such as cement and ceramics. It is now trying to emulate the aviation successes of Dubai and Sharjah, home to Emirates Airline and Air Arabia, respectively. RAK International Airport will differ in one key aspect, however. Other airport developments hinge on the growth of local airlines such as Etihad and Emirates. Ras al Khaimah will also focus on courting new airlines instead of relying solely on RAK Airways, which suffered a series of setbacks recently. "Dubai [airport] is all about Emirates, and Abu Dhabi is all about Etihad," said Michelle Soliman, the chief executive of RAK Airport. "At the moment, we are keeping everything common use. RAK Airways has been a brilliant catalyst, but the airport itself is not just about a home-based carrier." The plan centres on drawing in holiday tours and also encouraging new feeder services from airlines in Muscat and Abu Dhabi to cater to those visiting friends and relatives. A new airport apron and taxiway system would be put in to make better use of its existing 4,000-metre runway and benefit cargo carriers. Two new terminals will be built in phases, and existing terminals are to undergo a facelift. The project will cost $150m "at the minimal side", Ms Solimon said. She echoed the commitments in other emirates, that it was best to forge ahead with airport investment plans despite a global financial crisis. "Even if we are in downturn for a few years, by making a considered investment in increasing our capacity we will be ready for the upturn," she said. In the short term, RAK Airport will court Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi and Oman Air in Muscat to begin feeder flights. The airport's largest client, RAK Airways, is expected to carry roughly 125,000 passengers this year. This month, RAK Airways lost its fourth chief executive since the company launched two years ago. K Ravindran said he was leaving "to be with family", and has reportedly been replaced by Mouin Yassine, who also works at a local leasing company. The management instability follows RAK Airways pulling out of its service to Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, citing poor demand. Today the airline flies one Boeing 757-200 to South Asian destinations Calicut in India, and Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh, although its online booking system is not working. Khater Massaad, the managing director of RAK Airways, insisted the airport was still on track. "We are starting next week or the week after to fly to Paris and to Brussels. We got the landing rights for both destinations and are going to fly through Beirut," he said. The airline is scheduled to receive four new single-aisle aircraft from Boeing, beginning in 2011. * additional reporting by Nathalie Gillet igale@thenational.ae