Dubai South – the giant real estate development around what is planned to be one of the world’s mega-hubs – is beginning to look less like a soulless expanse of desert criss-crossed by empty, six-lane highways and more like a burgeoning aviation complex. The dusty, palm-tree-lined roads are still largely devoid of traffic, but alongside the single-storey Al Maktoum passenger terminal and the exhibition centre that hosts both the MEBAA and Dubai air shows, there are now three impressive business aviation terminals and a large maintenance hangar, with more infrastructure on the way.

It is all part of a push by Dubai’s government to lure business aviation away from the close-to-capacity, city centre Dubai International, or DXB – home to Emirates and dozens of other airlines – and into Al Maktoum airport, otherwise known as DWC, about 60km (37 miles) away at the more remote southern end of its territory. The intention is to develop Dubai South not just as the main gateway for business aircraft into the emirate, but a business aviation complex offering a range of services from fixed-base operations to heavy maintenance.

The strategy appears to be working. For the first time this year, business aviation movements into congestion-free DWC have outstripped those into Dubai International, which, despite its proximity to the city, is a victim of its own success. As the airport has become the world’s busiest international hub, business jet pilots have found themselves increasingly parked behind airliners in the departures queue. “Here you get the arrival and departure slot you want; at DXB you do not,” remarks Holger Ostheimer, general manager at DC Aviation Al-Futtaim, one of the new tenants at DWC.

In the past year, a VVIP passenger terminal has opened at DWC in which global FBO and flight support provider Jetex and Abu Dhabi-based charter and maintenance specialist Falcon Aviation Services (FAS) have a presence. Both organisations are also completing their own dedicated, upscale FBOs on either side of the building, and both plan to unveil their lounges during the MEBAA show. ExecuJet and Jet Aviation – long-time tenants at Dubai International – are also recent arrivals at the new airport, although with a more modest presence.

Meanwhile, three years after opening its Dubai South hangar and FBO, DCAF – the joint venture between the German charter provider and the UAE conglomerate – has broken ground on a major expansion that will double capacity at the facility. A second, 6,800m2 hangar, with room for two narrowbody maintenance bays, is scheduled for completion in the third quarter of 2017. Close by, FAS also plans to complement its new lounge with its own hangar, giving it a maintenance footprint at Dubai South as well as at its base at Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen business aviation airport.

Adel Mardini, the founder and chief executive of Jetex, says the company’s flagship FBO at Dubai South is inspired by the design of the lobby of a luxury boutique hotel. “The only difference is the handling agent will bring the VIP to the aircraft instead of the porter bringing him to his room,” he says. The company deliberately did not adopt many of the Arabic “majlis” styling cues common to many VIP lounges in the region – with columns, carpets and facing chairs – and instead went for a more modern, cosmopolitan feel.

The 1,600m2 FBO is Dubai-headquartered Jetex’s 16th and joins recent openings in Marseilles, Toluca in Mexico and the Chilean capital Santiago. Jetex – which was founded in 2005 and claims to be one of only two companies in the world offering both trip planning and a network of FBOs – is assessing a number of other “key locations”, including two more in Europe, with the aim of having 30 FBOs by the end of the decade. However, Mardini insists that the business’s objective is “not to be the biggest, but the best”. He adds: “The Jetex brand is our success story. We have invested a lot in it.”

So far, DCAF is the only maintenance provider at DWC. Since launching its facility in 2013, DCAF has been expanding its portfolio of services. However, while it manages four locally-based Bombardier, Dassault and Gulfstream aircraft, maintenance and passenger handling remain its focus. It is a juxtaposition rarely seen outside the Middle East. While technicians service aircraft in the hangar, in the same building ultra-wealthy passengers wait for their flights in splendour.

“Providing consistency in this market is difficult. We didn’t want to be a processing facility. It’s about privacy and discretion,” says general manager Holger Ostheimer, who says the FBO uses “scent marketing” to “ensure guests have a good experience and remember it”. The transformation to luxury service provider has been quite a journey for a firm that began as DaimlerChrysler’s flight department. “For a long time there was a perception we were part of a car company,” says Ostheimer. “Now I finally get the impression everybody knows us and links us with the Middle East.”

While Dubai’s government tries to move business aviation from Dubai International to Dubai South, neighbouring Sharjah and Gama Aviation have other plans. For the past four years, the UK-based business aviation management and services company has been trying to convince operators to consider the emirate’s modest airport as an alternative to Dubai International. Its latest cheerleader is general manager Martin Ringrose, who joined Gama in 2015 after 31 years in the British army and now manages its Sharjah FBO and managed aircraft fleet on its UAE air operator’s certificate.

“Sharjah gives another choice for people coming into the UAE as DXB becomes more challenging,” he says. “Our base clients are a hard core of half a dozen Dubai families, all of which came from DXB in the past three years and have residences at [the northern] end of Dubai.” Gama also has to persuade users to choose Sharjah over DWC, and crucial to its case is the travel time by car from Sharjah to Dubai’s main landmarks. “We did a study a few months ago and it took 15 minutes less to get from here to the Burj Khalifa [in Dubai’s main business district] 22 hours a day,” he says.

Gama may find it easier to lure business when it opens a new FBO with two 5,000m2 hangars. Gama will announce the schedule at the MEBAA show, but construction will begin by year-end with the facility likely to be complete in mid-2018. “It’s a 30-year investment in a top-class business aviation centre,” says Ringrose, who admits that getting the message about Sharjah to business aviation users who rarely visit the UAE is the hardest. “Most people don’t know where Sharjah is, so we will probably never end up with 50% of the Dubai/Sharjah market. But it would be nice to get 30%.”

Although FAS is upping its presence at Dubai South, it is also consolidating its activities at its base, the UAE’s only dedicated business airport, Al Bateen in Abu Dhabi, where its fleet of helicopters and two Bombardier Q400 turboprops daily shuttle workers to the emirate’s offshore rigs and oil and gas facilities. Its maintenance facility for Embraer, Gulfstream and now Pilatus PC-12 aircraft is also “growing steadily”, says chief operating officer Capt Raman Oberoi. “There is a huge demand for maintenance in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] as a whole.”

Al Bateen, a 20min drive from downtown Abu Dhabi, was the city’s international airport until 1982 and a military base until 2008. It remains the city’s main business aviation gateway, with stand capacity for 90 jets, and works close to capacity on a number of occasions throughout the year such as the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix in November. It also hosts the Abu Dhabi Air Expo in April. Owner Abu Dhabi Airports says Al Bateen’s passenger traffic grew 9% in 2015 to more than 43,000, with around 5,400 aircraft movements.

The airport is home to charter operators such as Rotana Jet and AJA and has a VIP terminal as well as its Sheikh Zayed passenger terminal. Military hangars and other buildings left from its days as an air base mean there is scope for further infrastructure development and among those looking at opportunities is AJA chief executive Dr Mark Pierotti. The ACJ operator is discussing with potential partners converting an existing structure into a “jet centre of excellence” offering hangarage and light maintenance.

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Source: Flight International