Bigger and Better

Aviation is feeling the heat right now. Yields and passenger numbers have fallen dramatically and any mention of economic recovery sparks a surge in oil prices.

The problem is seen as a global one, and while this is true to a large extent, some regions are decidedly more optimistic about the future. The heat in Dubai, for example, is purely down to the weather.

The current international airport handles approximately 5,600 weekly flights operated by nearly 100 airlines to over 200 destinations across all six continents. It is the fifth busiest in world by international traffic, based largely on the ever-increasing network of home carrier, Emirates, and in 2009 will handle over 40 million passengers.

And even though this facility will expand further in the next few years, it still won’t be enough. A new facility —Dubai World Central-Al Maktoum International (DWC-AMI) — will open up in June next year. Phase 1 includes a single A380-compatible runway; a passenger terminal with capacity for up to seven million passengers per annum; a cargo terminal building with a 600,000- ton per annum capacity; and a 92- meter air traffic control tower. Cost for this opening phase is estimated at $820 million.

Ultimately, DWC-AMI will have the ability to handle 12 million tons of cargo annually, three times more than the current busiest freight hub, Memphis, while its potential annual passenger throughput of 160 million is far more than Atlanta-Hartsfield currently serves.

Five parallel runways will serve up to four passenger terminals, no fewer than 16 cargo terminals, and hotels, shopping malls and amenities galore.

It sounds more than enough to keep a plethora of ground support companies busy, but in fact both airports will continue to be handled by Dubai’s sole provider, Dnata.

Jon Conway, divisional senior vice president, airport operations for Dnata, says the company constantly talks to its airline customers and benchmarks itself against the best ground handlers in the world. “Our customers are always keen to tell us how we compare with handlers in their other destinations and we want to be up there with the best,” he says. “Dnata is a growing business operating in six international locations with aspirations to expand. We are very aware that our successful international expansion will be reliant upon providing an exceptional service to international airlines at Dubai airport.”

Being up there with the best involves a host of factors. Perhaps none is more important right now than being as cost-effective as possible. Dnata had already begun a program looking closely at its operating costs before the recession began to take effect. The aim is to strike a balance between revenue growth opportunities and reducing costs, including spend on overtime and outsourced labor; the introduction of a new staff allocation system; a rationalization of accommodation and ground equipment (including fuel costs); and a focus on discretionary spend.

Of course, managing costs is never easy — particularly if the number of flights handled in 2009 has already grown by 6 percent, as is the case with Dnata. “We plan well in advance and over the next few years we will absorb most of the growth by using our current resources more effectively,” says Conway.

Those resources include personnel. Conway notes the ability to recruit depends on the skills required. “Lower skilled workers are easier to find and can often be sourced within the UAE from labor providers,” he says. “More skilled roles such as dispatchers and load controllers are sourced from around the world as we prefer them to have previous airline experience.”

New challenges
Experience is hard-earned, however. For example, Dnata is learning to cope with the A380. Emirates will eventually have the largest fleet of this type in the world with over 50 on order. At Dubai, the aircraft requires a larger parking space, at least three jet bridges, and modifications to the ground facilities.

“From a Dnata perspective, we required new pushback vehicles to cope with the greater weight, double the number of ground power, air conditioning and air starter units, as well as a modification to our loading vehicles as the A380 has larger cargo doors,” Conway informs. “New high lifters for disabled passengers and flight catering trucks were also required to reach the upper deck.”

After handling the A380 for over a year, Dnata is reviewing its processes and has recently conducted best practice visits to Hong Kong and London. “The A380 is still a new aircraft and therefore the learning curve is still quite steep,” accepts Conway.

Aside from the A380, Dnata is coming to terms with the rise of self-service — technologies that did not originally gain widespread acceptance in the Middle East, but are now prevalent.

Conway admits self-service was originally seen purely as a way of cutting costs and speeding up the check-in process. Dnata is now looking to expand on the core amenities such as online check-in and kiosks by talking to the airlines about adding bag drop desks, VISA checking facilities and scanners which can read online boarding passes. This creates new paradigms for the company. “If someone checks in at home with hand baggage only, we may not know whether they have actually arrived for the flight until they board the aircraft,” explains Conway. “This can create more work at the boarding point but it’s something we are getting used to.”

New airport
Dnata will also have to get used to the massive new facility, Dubai World Central-Al Maktoum International. Dubai World Central refers to the city being built around the airport, which is situated at Jebel Ali, some 40km from the existing Dubai International Airport. Dubai World Central is a 140km2 site — twice the size of Hong Kong Island — and comprises six zones, including residential city, commercial city and aviation city.

Dnata is hoping more efficient use of its facilities, manpower and equipment at Dubai International Airport will enable it to cope with the initial opening of DWC-AMI. Once the operating plan post-2010 becomes clearer, Dnata will start to put longer term plans in place.

Andrew Walsh, vice president for DWC, Dubai Airports, says the design and development of the airport facilities has been undertaken by a sister company, Engineering Projects, in conjunction with their consultants.

Dubai Airports has been engaged with Dnata in determining some of the operational details of handling and fine tuning the design. “The cargo terminal, for example, has been developed to enable the build and break of sea containers for easier processing of sea to air traffic, as well as the capability to quickly move through units for import and export,” says Walsh. “Perhaps the design improvements that are not immediately noticeable are providing staff canteen facilities airside and landside, enabling ground staff to remain in their work zones and reducing the load through security.”

Feeling the heat
Airport development and the plans in place to facilitate improvements in ground support certainly suggest Dubai isn’t getting as hot under the collar as other regions as the recession bites. But actually, with summer temperatures exceeding 50 C, it is still feeling the heat.

Naturally enough, employees, facilities and equipment at Dubai airport are affected. The buildings need robust air conditioning systems and the tarmac literally melts and needs on-going repairs. Of course, large air conditioning systems and a thorough maintenance plan for external facilities and equipment ease the conditions somewhat. “We occasionally supply extra air conditioning units while aircraft are on the ground,” says Conway. “Of paramount concern is care of our staff who provide cover 24 hours a day handling baggage and cargo. This year we have supplied tens of thousands of bottles of water, water coolers in rest areas, additional air conditioning, fans and shade wherever possible. Also ensuring they take sufficient breaks in the in air conditioned rest areas we provide is a priority.”

Dnata continually reviews these provisions and are already starting to build in further improvements for next summer, including a review of their uniform which will take place at the end of this year.

But whatever the climate, Dubai — and its two state-of-the art airports — seem determined to grow. If bullish plans are any indication of success, Dubai will be “hot” for some time to come.