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Despite the woes of the world financial crisis- Middle Eastern business aviation is bucking the rest-of-the world’s depressing trend- with many Arabian companies eyeing this period as the perfect time to invest in regional infrastructure and expand operations. The Middle Eastern market is set to expand 15-20% per annum over the next four years to become a $1 billion-per-year industry according to the Middle ...

Mike Vines   |   1st January 2009
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Financial crisis? What financial crisis?

Despite the woes of the world financial crisis- Middle Eastern business aviation is bucking the rest-of-the world’s depressing trend- with many Arabian companies eyeing this period as the perfect time to invest in regional infrastructure and expand operations.

The Middle Eastern market is set to expand 15-20% per annum over the next four years to become a $1 billion-per-year industry according to the Middle East Business Aviation Association (MEBAA)- organizers of the MEBA/Dubai show. Its other prediction is that the Middle East and North Africa markets will account for 20-25% of all new business jet deliveries worldwide between 2012-2018- worth around £300 billion.

According to Ali Al Naqbi- the founding chairman of MEBAA- the number of registered Middle Eastern business jets has risen 30-40% over the last couple of years- to around 500 aircraft- of which 114 are based in Saudi Arabia- with 78 registered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). “From 1975 to 1998 there was one business jet operator- now there are 22-” Al Naqbi added.

To catch up with aircraft deliveries to the region- the Middle Eastern business aviation MRO market is expected to grow at 9% per year over the next five years- and to cover this growth it makes a lot of financial sense to have full maintenance support much closer to the market.

Saudi-based Wallan Aviation- Cessna’s Middle Eastern dealership- has gained approval to become a fully authorized Cessna Service Center for the 500 series of business jets. Wallan Aviation’s CEO Captain Saad Wallan says his company will build on this- and eventually offer full maintenance for all Cessna models.

The company is based at Thumama Airport just 14 miles NE of Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport. It has a 14-000 ft runway- and customers are not charged landing fees. Capt Wallan says he expects to be very busy- “There are a lot of these aircraft [Cessna 500 series] in the Middle Eastern region and in Pakistan.”

The company also has a plot of land between Dubai International’s FBOs and plans to build a second service center here as well as at another undisclosed location. Wallan Aviation is also partnering with Bookajet of England whose expertise will grow the Saudi company’s managed business jet charter fleet and handle the operational side of the business.

The MAZ Aviation Group is investing $200 million in a spectacular MRO and support facility to handle the really big business jets at Riyadh. The company- which has over $1 billion worth of VVIP Airbus A350 Prestiges (six aircraft) on order and also 14 other acquisition pipelined programs- has nothing smaller than BBJ/ACJ sized aircraft on its horizon.

MAZ has formed a wholly owned subsidiary- the Ajwaa Alalam Group- which consists of three new business aviation companies. Ajawaa Alalam Aviation Services will specialize in aircraft fleet management- Ajwaa Alalam Technical in maintenance- and Ajwaa Alalam Logistics will handle associated spares and logistics.

“The Middle East is one of the most important- and yet the most underserved business aviation markets-” says Mohammed Al-Zeer- chairman of Ajwaa Alalam Holdings. His new $70 million 10-000 square meter hangar/office complex will open in the first quarter of 2011- with another $230 million available to equip the premises and buy more aircraft to give guaranteed availability to customers.

Back in the UAE there is a business aviation rivalry battle emerging between the UAE’s capital state of Abu Dhabi- and Dubai. At the moment neither has a purely business aviation airport- but under the auspices of Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC) the ex Al-Bateen military air base will become one. Aptly re-named ‘City Airport- Abu Dhabi’- it is ten kilometers from Abu Dhabi City and five from Abu Dhabi’s business district. ADAC is investing $54.4 million in developing this ‘seven star’- one-stop shop- business jet facility offering VVIP and VIP passenger terminals as well as MRO- fuel handling- and all other FBO services. Dubai- on the other hand has no such plans.

City Airport already has a 3-200 meter runway which will be capable of handling any sized business/governmental sized aircraft- and is in the process of having ILS installed. Operators already at the airport include Prestige Jet and Falcon Aviation Services.

Two year old Prestige Jet continues to amaze observers with its growth. Its fleet will include the first Lineage 1000- which is under management for an undisclosed client. The company is also in final negotiations for its second Lineage 1000 says Managing Director Faris Deeb- and expects the greatest demand for these large aircraft to come from customers in the UAE- Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Prestige Jet has also unveiled its ambitious plans to become an international out-ofregion player with its buy-out of Madrid’s Flylink Express- an aircraft management and charter operator. Its FBO operation at Madrid’s Torrejon airfield will be branded Prestige Jet Spain. “With this the company has become the first international Arabian operator with a European AOC-” said Deeb.

The opening of this FBO will coincide with other company start-up FBO operations in Jordan- Bahrain and Dohar in the first quarter of 2009. “We are Dohar’s first business jet charter operator- holding an AOC with certificate number 003-” Deeb explained proudly. All these operations will be prefixed as Prestige Jet for each location- but another planned operation in Qatar (to open in the same timeframe) will be known as Qjet.

Falcon Aviation Services (FAS)- meantime- only started operations in 2005 as a helicopter operator and maintenance provider- but now operates a Gulfstream G450 (the first of three on order) and an Embraer Legacy 600. It has become an Embraer authorized service center and ordered another eleven Embraer aircraft at the recent MEBA convention in Dubai. This order includes four Phenom 300s- two Legacy 500s- three Legacy 600s and two Lineage 1000s. This order will take FAS’s helicopter and fixed wing fleet from its current 15- to 41 aircraft.

The company has also just become a Sikorsky Service Center for S-76 helicopters (ME launch customer with four VVIP S-76Ds)- and is just finishing a new hangar at City Airport- Abu Dhabi.

Meanwhile Abu Dhabi’s mammoth- and privately owned- Al Jaber Group is moving into business aviation big time. It plans to start charter operations from City Airport with a single Legacy 600 in February- closely followed by a fleet explosion of another 21 aircraft. On order under management are a pair of Airbus A318 Elites and two ACJs- two Legacy 600s- five Lineage 1000s and eight Embraer 450/500 medium sized business jets. Known worldwide as AJC- and the largest private employer in the UAE with 55-000 employees- it is already into shipping- construction- and many other industries.

And Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies has become the first Piaggio Aero Avanti II service center in the Middle East. It is based at the capital’s International Airport- and planned to be operational by year end 2008.

Dubai’s answer to the very full ramps of its business FBOs at Dubai International Airport (DBX)- which include ExecuJet- Jet Aviation and Executive Flight Service- is the new- soon to be opened- 140 square km- six runway mega-airport at Jebel Ali- which will have its own dedicated business aviation complex. Although known as Jebel Ali for many years- the airport has now been officially re-named Al Maktoum International Airport (JBX). Its first completed runway is yet to be certificated and used- firstly by cargo operators from DBX.

This cargo move now looks likely by mid-2009 so JBX’s all new Executive Jet Center and maintenance enclave could open around six months later. This is backed up by the MEBA announcement that Dubai based Palm Aviation is to open JBX’s first FBO with completion in the fourth quarter of this year (2009). Palm is investing $10.9 million in a spectacular 80-000 sq ft facility which is part of the company’s plan to grow revenues by 35% per year over the next five years across the region. Palm also has an MoU with Jordanian Aircraft Maintenance Ltd (JorAMCo) of Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. Under the agreement Palm will offer global flight support- ground handling and fuel to JorAMCo customers.

Dubai’s Empire Aviation Group- the regional dealers for Hawker Beechcraft- has signed an agreement with Dubai World Central’s Aviation City to build an 80-000 sq ft aircraft showroom near JBX’s Executive Jet Center- which is due to be completed by the end of this year (2009).

Meanwhile- ExecuJet Middle East (EJME)- which has an FBO- a joint maintenance operation with Bombardier- and a managed and owned fleet of around 27 business jets at DBX- sees JBX as an opportunity to open an expanded second operation at the new airport. Mike Berry- EJME’s MD- says his company has already acquired a building plot at the Executive Jet Center enclave and expects to open there in 2010.

“There is a vast amount of land available for development-” said Berry- adding that this enclave should make the new airport the mega hub for Middle Eastern business aviation- able to accommodate all the global business aviation players.

Jet Aviation’s Dubai General Manager- Michael Rucker- says that his company’s plans to open another operation at JBX are still being checked out. Executive Flight Service- also at DBX and owned by Dubai Airports- is playing its cards close to its chest- but it seems very unlikely that it won’t open there- given its high profile owners.

Bahrain-based Rizon Jet announced its intention to open an FBO and maintenance operation at London-Biggin Hill airport just a few months before Abu Dhabi’s Prestige Jet told of its expansion plans for Madrid.

Rizon’s $20 million Biggin Hill opening is all part of the company’s new Middle Eastern owner’s ambitious plans to take the company from a small intra-Gulf air taxi operation- to a sizable international business bridging the gap between the ME and Europe with its own aviation services. As well as the spectacular Biggin Hill facility- the company is to add a $15 million- 75 room hotel close by. It also has plans to open an FBO/maintenance operation ‘somewhere in the Gulf’ in the near future.

Lebanese charter operator Open Sky Aviation has taken delivery of its first of two Citation Mustangs. Operations are from Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. It is the first Middle Eastern company to offer new-technology- entry level business jet services says the company.

Beirut and Zweibrücken-based ImperialJet was due to take delivery of the first of four Challenger 850s by year end 2008 for its fractional program. ImperialJet is partnered with JetAir Flug which holds its German AOC but despite this- “We’re a 100% Middle East company and also a true European company-” said COO James Barlow.

Qatar’s Doha International Airport (due to open in 2010) is to feature a dedicated area known as the ‘Emir Terminal’ for use by the Qatar royal family. The new airport will cover 8.5 sq miles and replace the existing airport some four km to the west.

There were 75 business aircraft on the Dubai Airport’s Expo ramp at this year’s first three day MEBA event. Many were of the widebody- long-haul- heavy-iron variety- with many pre-owned aircraft amongst them.

Four BBJs- a BBJ2- and Comlux’s ACJ stood out. But a Challenger 850 and CRJ200 VIP derivatives underlined that customers were looking for bargains at around $20 million each. Six Global Express’- probably a dozen or so Bombardier CL601/604 and CL605s underlined the importance of this fast maturing Middle Eastern market.

But like NBAA and EBACE earlier in the year- a growing number of these aircraft were pre-owned and if anything the Dubai show underlined the urgency and hope of western companies to sell to the Middle East as their own traditional markets continue to contract.

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