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Middle East Careers: Air Arabia leads the charge for Sharjah

The 75 minute or so drive that separates Emirates' hub of Dubai from Etihad's base in Abu Dhabi is often used to illustrate how the two UAE flag-carriers' ambitious expansion trajectories must ultimately collide.

In the low-cost world, two other airlines are embarking on similar, but different, growth strategies at bases even less distance apart. So far, like their bigger counterparts, Air Arabia and Flydubai appear to be co-existing happily.

Based in the emirate of Sharjah - a stone's throw from the Dubai International home of Emirates' low-cost offshoot Flydubai - Air Arabia has, in its eight years of existence, built a fleet of 27 Airbus A320s, with a further 39 on order. It flies to 65 destinations from Sharjah and two other satellite hubs in Morocco and Egypt.

Led by charismatic chief executive Adel Ali - often dubbed the Richard Branson or Tony Fernandes of the Middle East - the airline is like Flydubai in terms of recruitment, taking on about 40 pilots a year, a figure that may increase as the speed of deliveries intensifies.

Of its current contingent of 329 pilots, 263 are based in Sharjah, with 48 in Morocco and 18 in Egypt. Terms for pilots joining the carrier are 5,000h for captains and 1,500h for first officers, including 800h on A320s for both positions.

Air Arabia says its appeal to flightdeck recruits is "appealing packages" and the fact that many pilots prefer the convenience of low-cost operations, with a single type, a more predictable roster and fewer layovers. It also offers a limited ab initio programme for second officers, particularly UAE citizens.

The growth of Air Arabia shows how an anchor airline can transform an airport. Until it arrived, Sharjah International was a little-used terminal with, as Ali describes it, "a couple of taxi drivers asleep in their cars at the front". Now, he says, the taxis queue in a long line and several airlines have services there, looking for a cheaper alternative to Dubai.

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