Ras al-Khaimah (RAK) International airport is looking to build on the 67 per cent growth in passenger volume recorded in the first half of 2012 compared with the same period last year. It is targeting 25 per cent growth annually for at least the next four years.

The man charged with delivering this growth is the airport’s chief executive officer, Andrew Gower, who joined the company at the beginning of 2012, moving from Liverpool’s John Lennon airport in the UK where he held senior positions for 11 years.

Gower wants RAK airport to be positioned as an alternative entry point into the UAE, alleviating some of the pressure from the increasingly congested Dubai International airport. He highlights the fact that the airport is just 45 minutes from Dubai. “Dubai can certainly benefit from RAK airport,” he says.

“People tend to [view] the UAE as Dubai. At trade shows they don’t talk about Abu Dhabi, they don’t talk about the UAE, they just talk about Dubai. The fact [was] that people didn’t really even know [RAK] airport existed.”

Rising arrivals in Ras al-Khaimah

Given the rise in passenger numbers, RAK airport is beginning to gain recognition. This is partly as a result of the resurgence of RAK Airways and the increasing number of routes it operates from the airport. RAK Airways was rebranded and relaunched as a value airline in 2010, after ceasing operations in 2009 in the middle of the global financial crisis.

The carrier’s newest route, to Abu Dhabi, was officially launched earlier in October. It is the carrier’s first domestic route.

The airline plans to operate four direct flights a week between the two emirates. RAK Airways also set up a codeshare agreement with Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways earlier in the year, offering RAK passengers access to Etihad’s global route network via Abu Dhabi International airport.

RAK airport is beginning to see increased European tourist traffic passing through the terminal. This is partly due to the daily German charter flights that began using the airport towards the end of last year.

More airlines are expected to start using RAK airport in the coming year, particularly those from Russian, Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eastern European markets.

In August, the Ras al-Khaimah Tourism Development Authority signed an agreement with Natalie Tours, one of the biggest Russian tour operators for UAE destinations, to introduce twice-weekly charter flights operated by Transaero Airlines from Moscow to RAK airport. The flights are due to start operating later this month. It is expected the agreement will deliver an additional 7,000 Russian tourists to the emirate annually.

As passenger traffic climbs, RAK airport will begin to hit congestion problems on the ground and in the sky. With this in mind, Gower is overseeing the construction of additional infrastructure at the airport designed to boost passenger capacity by 50 per cent and increase retail space by 40 per cent.

The airport currently maintains departure and arrivals terminals, which are co-located with a VIP terminal. The overhaul will involve the demolition of the VIP terminal and the linking and expansion of the remaining terminals.

The designs for the expansion have been drawn up and funding options are being considered. It is estimated construction will be completed within the next two years.

Increasing efficiency at RAK airpot

In the meantime, the airport is making efforts to ensure more efficient processing of passengers within its current terminals.

“We are working towards a 15-minute processing time. You shouldn’t be at a check-in for more than 15 minutes, at immigration for more than 15 minutes, or waiting for your luggage for more than 15 minutes,” says Gower.

In late September, RAK airport signed a contract with US-based Arinc for the provision of technology designed to improve the speed and efficiency of passenger traffic passing through the airport.

The contract will also see the launch of the Middle East’s first off-site hotel check-in and bag drop service, expected to be introduced in the coming months.

The service will allow RAK airport passengers to have their luggage checked in and tagged at their hotel.

The technology will play its role in making RAK airport a more desirable option for both tourists and business travellers.

Focus on tourism

In addition to its stated ambitions in the aviation sector, Ras al-Khaimah is positioning itself as a tourism destination in its own right.

It has already poured millions into hotel developments, including a Hilton hotel and spa complex, The Cove Rotana Resort and Banyan Tree resort. A Real Madrid football-themed park is planned for construction in 2015 and the UAE’s first Waldorf Astoria is set to open its doors in RAK’s Al-Hamra Village next year. 

The government is in the process of investing at least AED600m ($163m) in hotel projects with the aim of bringing total room inventory to 10,000 by 2016.