Stepping up: MEBA comes of age

This year's Middle East Business Aviation (MEBA) show sees the fusion of old and new. Liz Moscrop looks at the thought behind it


“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Ali Al Naqbi, chairman of the Middle East Business Aviation Association (MEBAA) quoted a famous Chinese philosopher when he helped form the organisation back in 2006.

Although the sentiment is ancient, it is as relevant today as it was when Lao-tzu wrote it somewhere around 500 BC.

Several steps into MEBAA’s journey, one of its key achievements is the biennial Middle East Business Aviation show (MEBA), produced by Dubai Airshow organiser, F&E Aerospace, on the association’s behalf.

A success by any criteria, this year’s event – the fifth edition – takes place from December 11 to 13 at Dubai’s Al Maktoum International Airport – Dubai World Central.

F&E managing director Alison Weller, said: “Three months ahead of the show we were way ahead of where we had planned to be. We knew that a lot of local companies would book nearer the time but we have a strong showing of international exhibitors, which represent new, rather than existing business.”

MEBA 2012 is offering several initiatives, such as a dedicated US pavilion. Weller explained: “Over the past few years the US business aviation market has proven its resiliency and the strong have survived. One of the key reasons for this survival has been the focus on those regions of the world where the market is most active – the Middle East among them.”

She added: “With budgets down and marketing dollars being scrutinised, it is beneficial for companies to invest in a show that is tailor-made and focused on their particular subset of the aviation business. The US presence will not only showcase American business aviation and values at their best but also shows how far MEBA has come in just five shows. We expect this year to be the start of more countries supporting us with national groups.”

Another step up for the show comes from new kid on the block –VIPinteriors@MEBA.

Due to a growing demand for interior repair and refurbishment capabilities in the Middle East, MEBA will also showcase a VIP interiors section, enabling companies to feature some of their latest evolutions in cabin design, engineering, completions and new interior systems.

The shrewd move to include this section reflects the fact that local VVIPs really appreciate the latest innovations on offer. For example, nine heads of state from the region are reported to have ordered Boeing’s new 747-8 Aeroloft luxury business jet, which boasts a separate cabin with sleeping quarters for eight people.

This extra capacity, that also offers a changing room, adds nearly 400 square feet to the cabin, which is housed above the main deck, between the upper deck and the tail. This gives the aircraft a massive 5,179 square feet of interior space, upping the ante on the Airbus A380, which comes in at 5,146 square feet. The first Aeroloft is now in a completions hangar at Lufthansa Technik’s facility in Hamburg. It is scheduled to enter service in 2014.

At the time of going to press interiors exhibitors included: Saudi Arabia’s Alsalam Aircraft Co, Switzerland’s AMAC Aerospace, Aurora, Jet Aviation, OnAir and RUAG, Monaco’s Boutsen Aviation, Sabena Technics and Vision Systems Aeronautics from France, Canadian companies Flying Colours and Tag Aeronautics, Italians Delta Interior Design, Gore Design, Lou Martin & Associates and Rockwell Collins from the US, and German outfitter Lufthansa Technik.

The interesting thing about this mix is not only its geographical spread but also the breadth of capabilities incorporated in the list. What is evident is that when it comes to outfitting a new aircraft or refitting an old one, technology is trumps, whether in cabin management systems, new seating or galleys or the invisible magic of satellite communications.

Switzerland-based OnAir, for example, recently announced that it would expand its telephony, message and Internet service to business jets. The company offers a GSM network chip and Wi-Fi cabin hotspot, which allow passengers to use mobile devices to make and receive telephone calls, exchange text or multimedia messages or access the Internet. The firm currently provides this package as a retrofit service, but this could soon change.

Another interesting development comes from Idair, a joint venture between Lufthansa Technik and Panasonic Avionics. The company produces Eclipsair, a wireless “infotainment” system that delivers news, video, audio, data and flight information through one access point, plus a web-based media server directly to the user’s mobile device.

This is becoming essential, since apps form a major part of cabin management today. Back in 2010 NBAA attendees were wowed when Gulfstream introduced an app that would turn passengers’ iPods or iPhones into a remote control that would work everything in the cabin, from window shades to the entertainment system.

Today there are apps that can dig even deeper into the aircraft’s audio visual on demand (AVOD) server, and allow the viewer to watch anything contained therein on their iPad or iPhone (digital rights permitting).

Earlier this year Rockwell Collins introduced its CabinRemote, an app that adds a whole new dimension to its airshow moving map software, effectively turning the aircraft ‘invisible’ as it flies over different areas of the world.

In terms of less exotic, but still practical interior comforts, there could be a great deal to see either at the aircraft manufacturers’ booths or on the static park. Both Dassault and Bombardier have introduced showers on to their jets. In a special request from a customer, the French airframer recently added a shower to its flagship Falcon 7X. The booth features a rain shower attachment, plus an outside window that can be dimmed for privacy.

Bombardier, meanwhile, already offers a shower as an optional extra on its Global 5000 and Global 6000, and Gulfstream will offer one as an option on its new G650, starting in 2013.

An even less glamorous, but intensely practical comfort option from Peterborough, Ontario-based Flying Colours, sees the addition of a proprietary smoke-extraction system to remove galley smells.

Rising traffic in the region has led to an increasing focus on facilities at the show. With the spotlight on BusinessAirports@MEBA companies such as ExecuJet, Fujairah International Airport, Hadid International, Harrods Aviation, London Biggin Hill, Jet Aviation, Jetex, Rizon Jet and TAG Farnborough will have the opportunity to promote their FBO services to encourage owners and operators of business jets to route through their airports.

The Gulf has remained a stable and increasingly influential market in VIP helicopters and Bell Helicopter and Hawker Pacific are among the first to show their enthusiasm for the new Helicopters@MEBA focus area.

Another addition is Luxury@MEBA, which is an opportunity for luxury goods and services companies to get their products in front of high-net-worth individuals and corporations visiting or exhibiting at MEBA.

A study by global management consultants Bain & Company predicted that the global market for top-end products would exceed €200bn ($259bn) in 2012 and that the Middle East luxury market would grow by 15%.

The new focus areas may prove to be a permanent fixture as the show moves forward. Weller explained: “The demand for these products and services are strong and as anticipated we have generated a lot of interest in all three focus areas enabling MEBA to become a one-stop hub for an owner, operator or prospective buyer to be able to source, purchase, fit out and operate a business aircraft in the region.”

MEBA also plays host to several official events. On Sunday December 9 three important meetings take place: The MEBAA operators meeting, the grey market seminar and a few IS-BAO workshops. The following day there is a conference on the future of business jets in the Middle East.

These forums are a core part of MEBAA’s strategy to promote business aviation in the Gulf.

Formed in June 2006, the association’s first step on its thousand-mile journey was to recognise that business aviation players operating throughout the Middle East and North Africa region needed to speak with a single voice. They also needed to learn lessons from more mature markets, while retaining the unique characteristics of the region.

Al Naqbi said: “Business aviation is an essential tool for economic development and wealth-generation... Sadly, it is often misunderstood. This incorrect perception is derived mostly from the cost angle alone, condemning it as an expensive adjunct that can easily be dispensed with.”

MEBAA is aiming to change that by being a single point of contact in presenting the face of business aviation in the Gulf to government, media and industry. It is also the means by which the regional business aviation community will address government legislation and raise public perceptions of the industry.

The local grey market is a particular bugbear and an issue Al Naqbi has fought passionately to resolve. He said: “The grey market in business aircraft charter occupies centre stage in most of the business aviation forums in recent times. It is believed around 50% of charter operations are taken away by this unscrupulous sector of industry.”

He cited reasons such as uninformed customers attracted by immediate gains of lower rates, crooked charter operators “out to make a quick buck.” and indifferent aircraft owners who are unaware of the misuse of their equipment. The recent dire economic climate did not help.

He explained: “The complete picture concerning consequences of this part of business is yet to be understood by all the players in business aviation since no major incident has occurred. So far grey market operation has remained as illegal but not unsafe, but it may not remain so for ever.”

He suggested one way to educate passengers would be to circulate the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA)’s brochure named ‘Is my flight legal? Your rights as business aircraft charter passenger.’ This leaflet outlines in simple terms vital questions to ask; such as does the provider have an Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC)? It also highlights the importance of flight permits to regions, flight plans, safety aspects, and crew qualifications, as well as the consequences of illegal flights on people’s personal insurance.

Al Naqbi urged airports and air traffic controllers to be vigilant and to work together to stamp out the practice. He said: “Intelligence is the key to arrest and eliminate any illegal activity. Trade associations like MEBAA, with its membership drawn from various international branches of business aviation, could be the nodal agencies for collection of such relevant data.”

The combination of focused education sessions, key exhibitors and relevant visitors means that MEBA is going from strength to strength. The 2010 edition attracted 6,200 attendees from 77 countries, a 13% increase over the previous show in 2008. More than 500 VIPS attended, including a number of sheikhs from the region, plus other key buyers and buying influencers.

Two years ago saw 53 business aircraft on display and some 338 exhibitors from 33 countries rock up.

Weller admits to being excited about the show’s prospects. She said: “We are in a new venue this year, with a duty free shop right in the middle of the exhibition area. I am much more buzzed than I was in 2010. The industry is in better shape today than after the downturn of 2008.”

Al Naqbi, too, is philosophical about the next phase of MEBAA’s thousand-mile journey, and recently told members: “It is said that business jets are the first to arrive in areas of the world that will see the next spate of industrial growth and economic development. We continue to need you to help us to take the next steps in our journey of a thousand miles.”

Perhaps, then, it is time to look to a more modern philosopher for guidance. Contemporary Moroccan thinker Professor Abdallah Laroui wrote: “It is impossible to oppose modernism except through surpassing it, and it is not possible to surpass it except through assimilating it.”

MEBA this year does just that.