Abu Dhabi, host city for Routes '97, has its own unique approach to airport marketing. Mark Blacklock reportsShortly before landing at Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, Britannia Airways screens a video about the city, its airport and the duty free shopping complex. Provided free of charge by Abu Dhabi's Department of Civil Aviation, the destination video is one part of the department's extensive marketing campaign.

Involving the international print media, satellite television, sports sponsorship, and an airport raffle with a cash prize of Dh500,000 (US$136,000), the campaign has two main thrusts. 'We have a DCA/airport and a duty free campaign,' explains Mohamed Mounib, commercial development and marketing manager. 'The DCA campaign basically talks about frequency and facilities, while the duty free campaign centres on the raffle, promotions of different product lines, and a trade-related campaign to educate suppliers.' The raffle is profitable.

Aimed at a global audience, the campaigns also pave the way for the DCA's presentations to targeted airlines by raising Abu Dhabi's profile. Traditionally Dubai, the second largest of the UAE's seven emirates, has enjoyed a higher international profile through the marketing efforts of the Dubai Commerce and Tourism Promotion Board, Dubai Duty Free, and Emirates.With low hydrocarbon reserves, economic diversification is vital.

Abu Dhabi can expect to enjoy oil and gas revenues for well over another century and has not had the same impetus to diversify and market itself. But with a US$400 million investment programme at Abu Dhabi and a new airport at Al Ain to pay for, the DCA knows it has to set out its stand in the international marketplace.

'We know the competition is severe and we have to offer something better,' declares Mounib. The DCA's answer is an open skies policy backed up by a one-stop shop approach, giving airlines a single contact for arranging all the necessary ground support services. Mounib oversees duty free and catering and coordinates presentations to ensure that representatives from all the other operations are sitting round the table.

Offering a package is made easier by the fact that all support services - including aircraft fuelling - are provided by entities owned by the local government, which also owns the freeholds of most of the hotels in Abu Dhabi City. This contrasts with the UAE's other main gateways in the emirates of Dubai and Sharjah, which have international oil companies on-airport, and gives Abu Dhabi total price control. So while the basic landing fee of Dh12 (US$3.27) per tonne (for aircraft over 50 tonnes) is the same as at Dubai and Sharjah, the total cost of a turnaround is less. 'We aim to offer the most inexpensive stopover in the Middle East and guarantee that fuel will be 2 cents a gallon cheaper,' continues Mounib.

The package has proved attractive to carriers like Britannia, which switched its Gulf technical stop for India, Asia and Australasia charter flights from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi last year. An important factor for Britannia was the availability of technical support from the Gulf Aircraft Maintenance Company (Gamco), a joint venture between the Abu Dhabi government and Gulf Air. Besides supporting the transits at Abu Dhabi, Gamco provides an engineer who travels on each Britannia flight to Goa to cover the turnaround there. The DCA also helped Britannia get advantageous rates on hotel rooms for its slip crews.

For British Airways, which needed a Gulf transit point to reopen services to Colombo with DC-10-30s, local traffic potential was the clincher. BA already had a daily Abu Dhabi-London/Heathrow service, but evaluated all the Gulf airports it was serving with origin and destination (O&D) flights before opting to schedule its twice-weekly London/Gatwick-Colombo service through Abu Dhabi. The carrier is now looking at doubling frequency on the route.

The DCA has signed up China Airlines for a twice weekly Taipei-Abu Dhabi-Rome service plus all the carrier's Taipei-Europe cargo flights, and has brought in new services from Royal Brunei and Singapore Airlines. Mounib says negotiations are underway with other carriers.

Besides its drive to attract new carriers, the DCA helps to develop the business of existing operators. Gulf Air, the largest user of Abu Dhabi and 25 per cent owned by the local government, operates a multi-hub system with Abu Dhabi as its second most important point after Bahrain. One initiative aims to encourage more longhaul connections over Abu Dhabi by offering passengers a 24-hour stopover with free transfers, accommodation and meals. This is jointly funded by the DCA and Gulf Air, as are promotions offering passengers originating in Abu Dhabi or Al Ain complimentary duty free vouchers.

Operating an open skies policy means that the UAE can find itself giving away more than it gains in certain markets. For example, Pakistan restricts Gulf Air and Emirates to Karachi, while PIA also serves Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar. A recent Filipino delegation to Abu Dhabi was also reluctant to grant more rights to the UAE carriers. But open skies has generated new business, for instance by allowing leisure carrier LTU to use Abu Dhabi as a destination, refuelling point and mini-hub. Several times a week, two aircraft operating Germany-Asia city pairs are scheduled through Abu Dhabi at the same time to allow transfers.

LTU and its sister tour operators sell Abu Dhabi as a holiday destination and Mounib says tourism is developing, helped by the DCA participating at international trade shows. Incoming traffic is also generated by conferences and exhibitions. However, Abu Dhabi's O&D traffic is underpinned by the city's status as federal capital and a large expatriate community.

The UAE has enjoyed continued economic expansion, in contrast to the recession that has gripped most Gulf states over the past three years. GDP grew 6.6 per cent in 1995 and is expected to grow 5.5 per cent this year. 'Our main market is definitely the [Indian] sub-continent followed by the Gulf Cooperation Council and other Middle East states, Europe and the Far East, in that order,' says Mounib. 'Gulf Air's direct service to New York is doing well and traffic on it is building.'

Bombay is the busiest O&D route with 166,242 passengers in 1995, followed by Bahrain, Doha, London, Karachi and Cairo, each accounting for over 100,000 passengers. Abu Dhabi handled a total of 3.308 million passengers last year, one third of whom were in transit. O&D traffic is set to grow in relative importance.

'We are looking for new destinations in the Far East and Australia and for growth in Africa,' says Abdullah Saeed Abbad Al Hameli, director general of civil aviation. 'We also see potential for a service to Brazil via Johannesburg.'

Al Hameli anticipates Abu Dhabi will handle 5 million passengers a year by the turn of the century. 'We are developing the airport in phases over the next four years,' he says. New facilities for the Royal Flight and general aviation are nearing completion, and the passenger terminal is being refurbished with a new baggage system and a doubling in size of the airside transit hotel to 20 rooms. A second parallel runway is due for completion at the end of 1998, followed a year later by a second aircraft boarding satellite.

Abu Dhabi is preparing for the new large aircraft proposed by Airbus and Boeing by making the second runway 60m wide compared to the current 45m, and by designing the 11 new gates with wider clearances. The new, larger satellite will provide more space for passenger handling and 4,000m2 of duty free shopping, compared to 2,800m2 in satellite one.

Abu Dhabi's freight traffic has been growing strongly - it was up 17 per cent to just over 67,000 tonnes last year - and cargo facilities are being expanded with five additional parking stands and new warehouse space. Meanwhile, a par three golf course and 200 bed hotel will be built on a site 500m from the passenger terminal. Longer term proposals include a terminal expansion to give Gulf Air a dedicated check-in area.

The DCA is also planning expansion at Al Ain airport, 130km east of Abu Dhabi City. With 400,000 inhabitants, Al Ain is the emirate's second city and its international airport opened in March 1994 having first been given the go-ahead in 1977. Construction challenges involved levelling sand dunes rising from 40m to 60m and providing a firm surface across the site, and work was halted during the Gulf war when the runway was used for military operations. During the airport's long gestation the facilities originally foreseen were scaled down, and it opened with a simple terminal and ramp space for up to 10 aircraft.

In 1995, Al Ain handled 114,300 passengers and 3,595 tonnes of freight on regional flights serving the Middle East and CIS. Growth this year has been strong, according to Al Hameli. 'We started operations with five airlines and now there are 10.'

However, the lack of a proper cargo terminal and flight kitchen are limiting factors. Airlines generally have to carry roundtrip catering, although Mounib has, on occasion, trucked catering supplies from Abu Dhabi. Construction is expected to start next year on an extension to the existing terminal and new buildings to handle cargo, catering and ramp equipment, giving Al Ain scope to expand. 'Once I have the catering I will be able to offer the airport to longer haul airlines,' says Mounib.

As Al Ain is close to the Omani border, there may be some scope to develop cross-border traffic if an agreement can be negotiated with the Omani government. For the time being, Mounib sees Al Ain airport as an extension to Abu Dhabi, especially since at peak times every stand at Abu Dhabi is taken. He says: 'If I can't offer a night stop at Abu Dhabi, I can offer Al Ain.'

Source: Airline Business