When Kjeld Binger looked out of the windows of his airport office earlier this year he could be forgiven for thinking he was back in his native Denmark, as on ground outside was something that he probably never dreamt that he’d see in Amman – snow!
A freak weather front led to the recent powerful storm ‘Jana’ dumping up to 7.6 centimetres (three inches) of snow on Jordan’s capital city and its gateway to the world, Queen Alia International Airport (QAIA).
While nothing by Danish standards where during winter months it often snows from December until early March, for a country like Jordan, which is 92% desert, three severe snowstorms in the space of a week and sub-zero temperatures in Amman are almost unheard of.
Indeed, plummeting temperatures to a chilly 5°C in the days before the storm, and news of the impending arrival of snow, led to some people stocking up on food and fuel in anticipation of the possible shutdown of Amman’s main roads and highways.
The airport, for its part, was more than ready for what lay ahead, readying its small fleet of snow clearance vehicles and anti-icing equipment and warning passengers to get to QAIA early in anticipation of possible weather caused delays.
So how did the airport fare? Binger, CEO of Queen Alia operator, Airport International Group (AIG), believes that they did pretty well, although he notes that an “extraordinary three hours of continuous snow” one morning did cause the diversion of three flights.
The biggest headache for airlines and passengers during the first snowstorm (Huda), admits Binger, was the difficulty in getting to and from the airport due to the icy road conditions, particularly on a hill top access road some 1,200-metres above sea level, which was also covered in half-a-metre of snow!
Binger is actually underplaying the efficiency in which AIG dealt with the situation as despite the atrocious conditions Queen Alia handled total of 80,000 passengers and 1,025 aircraft movements during the worst of weather between January 6th and the 11th.
Although not part of its emergency snow plan or its responsibility, AIG also provided complimentary meals for around 250 passengers stuck at Queen Alia overnight due to ‘Huda’ and transported another 200 to the nearby airport hotel in airport shuttle buses when other forms of transport were unavailable.
“People, including myself before I came here in November 2011, don’t normally associate Jordan with snow, but we do get it on occasion, and therefore have to be prepared for it,” he says.
“Compared to my old airport in Copenhagen, we don’t have many snow clearance vehicles and can only call upon a small team of people to help out if we do get snow, but they are no less dedicated and, as we saw recently, will do all that they can to get things done when called upon.
“For our part, we kept two shifts of maintenance, passenger service and duty management teams active at the airport when the storm first hit on Tuesday until the following Monday morning to ensure smooth operations throughout the worst weather conditions.”
With such dedication it should come as no surprise to learn that Queen Alia International Airport is fast gaining a reputation for delivering quality customer service to match the best in the business.
Indeed, QAIA’s customer-focused philosophy – which Binger believes together with the airport’s “fast and efficient transfer process” help set it apart from other gateways – have been recognised by passengers which rated it the Best in the Middle East and Best Improvement in the Middle East in ACI’s 2014 Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer satisfaction survey.
Binger proudly reveals that QAIA was the top Middle Eastern airport in all 36 different categories measured in the 2014 ASQ programme, a magnificent achievement he attributes to AIG’s customer service focused philosophy.
“Our focus is on the provision of high quality facilities and services and this is reflected in our mission statement which is for Queen Alia to contribute towards the prosperity and pride of Jordan and our stakeholders by being among the world’s top 20 airports in each ASQ category,” he says.
“Ongoing training programmes, wellness sessions, always looking to make improvements by analysing the survey results, and having quality on the agenda of everything we do has created a passenger-focused corporate culture across the airport.”
He is particularly proud of the AIG’s efforts to make the security process more customer friendly, which started by simply persuading army staff on security duty to ditch their military uniforms for less intimidating blazers and trousers.
Binger is among the first to admit that QAIA’s impressive new 100,000sqm terminal – phase one opened in 2013 – has played a major part in the airport’s ASQ success.
A host of new retail and F&B outlets, which have included a number of local brands and concepts to help create a sense of place, and a huge duty free walkthrough store operated by World Duty Free have also helped contribute towards its popularity.
Retail and F&B operations currently account for 20% of the airport’s non-aeronautical revenues.
“Passenger satisfaction levels have soared since the new terminal opened,” enthuses Binger. “All I really need to say is that before it opened the old terminal ranked 186 in the world in ACI’s ASQ survey. Today it ranks 34 in the world and this needs to be seen in context as we currently bus 40% of our departing passengers to aircraft parked at remote gates. Its impact has been truly remarkable.”
When AIG was awarded a 25-year concession to operate QAIA it pledged to build the new terminal to better equip the gateway to handle rising demand, and it has been as good as its word.
However, the need to continue to use the old terminal while the new one was being built meant that it had to be constructed in phases with the main terminal building – opened in 2013 – initially being followed by two piers built on the site of the old terminal.
With the old terminal now demolished, work is underway on the new $200 million pier extensions that will effectively complete the first phase of the new terminal and equip QAIA to handle 12mppa.
When they open in 2016, the 46,500sqm piers will boast 13 fixed link bridges – four of which will be capable of simultaneously accommodating either two narrowbody or one widebody aircraft and, if required, both arriving and departing flights at the same time – and 17 contact gates.
The additional gates will also ensure that AIG no longer has to bus 40% of QAIA’s departing passengers to aircraft parked at remote gates.
“We are currently gate constrained because we only have the capacity to serve around 60% of our departing passengers from contact gates. We don’t like this as it is a challenge and it is not the best customer service,” remarks Binger.
“Thankfully, it will be a thing of the past from 2016 and, when it is and we are able to provide all our passengers with top quality services from the moment they step inside the building until the moment they leave, I expect our terminal to be ranked as one of the best in the world in the ASQ survey.”
Completion of the expansion programme will take AIG’s investment in Queen Alia past the $1 billion mark since it took over responsibility for operating the gateway on January 1, 2008.
And the forward thinking airport already has further expansion programmes on the drawing board to raise its capacity to between 16mppa and 20mppa by 2032.
AIG has also been boosted by the news that the Jordanian government will rehabilitate the airport’s north runway this year, making it available for commercial operations for the first time since it took over responsibility for managing the airport.
Binger reveals that this will be a significant development for the airport, which is currently only able to use one of its two 3,600m parallel runways and is therefore more vulnerable to the impacts of bad weather.
AIG will manage the project on behalf of the government, which under the terms of the 25-year concession is responsible for providing two certified, parallel runways.
“We expect to re-open the north runway later this year, which will allow us to carry out maintenance on the south runway before becoming a two runway airport again for the first time in nearly a decade,” he tells Asia-Pacific Airports.
“Our aim is to continue to enhance our passenger capacity and service levels to help Queen Alia reach its full potential as a regional transfer hub.
“It might sound ambitious, but the new terminal already ensures that we offer some of the fastest and most convenient transfer times in the world, and there is no reason to believe that we cannot build on this as we develop our route network.”
The goal is in line with the Kingdom’s national tourism strategy of not trying to compete with the neighbouring major hubs of Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Istanbul.
“Our aim is to create our own niche so we compliment instead of compete against the big hubs on our doorstep, as there is no way we could win that battle,” admits Binger.
“We have the best transfer product in the region. It is so easy to transfer through Queen Alia because of the short walking distances involved and efficient process of transferring between one flight and another. This is our unique selling point and therefore our opportunity to develop into a niche hub in the market.”
With a record 7.1 million passengers (+9%) passing through QAIA in 2014 there is no denying that the new terminal and piers, when they open, will be needed to help AIG meet rising demand.
Royal Jordanian Airlines
Royal Jordanian is the biggest airline at QAIA, currently accounting for around 44% of the market. Other big players in Amman include Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabian Airlines while low-cost carriers such as flydubai, flynas and Air Arabia are beginning to make an impact.
Binger is more than aware that for QAIA to succeed in its ambition to be a leading transfer hub it needs a strong Royal Jordanian, and he feels that the recent addition of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to its fleet is a step in the right direction.
“Royal Jordanian has an important role to play and I am confident that its investment in the Dreamliner will give it the operational flexibility to develop its network out of Amman, particularly to the fast growing Asian market and Africa,” he muses.
You get the feeling that the unveiling of its new piers and re-opening of its second runway in 2016 will be just the start of good times for Queen Alia International Airport.