BACK ON THE RADAR
Joe Bates discovers more about the ambitions and growth plans of arguably the Gulf state’s first gateway to make a global impression on the world – Bahrain International Airport.
Mohamed Yousif Al-Binfalah, CEO of Bahrain Airport Company (BAC), has no doubts about the impact the planned new terminal will make to Bahrain International Airport.
“Our new terminal won’t be the biggest in the region and our strategy does not revolve around being the biggest airport, but I can assure you that it will allow us to provide an exceptional passenger experience in terms of efficiency and technology,” he enthuses.
His words demonstrate the confidence and new ambitions of the airport, which arguably up until the late 1980s was the most famous Gulf state gateway due to the dominance and success of hub carrier, Gulf Air.
Back then, of course, Gulf Air was jointly owned by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and the states of Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, and it operated almost without a rival across the region until the birth of Emirates in Dubai in 1985.
As a result, the airport – located on the outskirts of the capital, Manama – was the region’s busiest gateway.
However, it wasn’t to last as the growth of Emirates and Dubai (DXB) and the change in ownership of Gulf Air, and the subsequent creation of new competition for the airline and airport – Qatar withdrew in 2002 and formed Qatar Airways operating out of Doha, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi pulled out in 2005 and established Etihad and, in 2007, Oman opted out and founded Oman Air based in Muscat – meant that suddenly Bahrain was no longer the focus of people’s attention in the Gulf.
Al-Binfalah, who succeeded Edinburgh-bound Gordon Dewar as CEO in September 2012, would be the first to admit that Bahrain has had some tough times in recent years as Gulf Air has restructured on more than one occasion in a bid to adapt to the new super competitive environment.
The good news is that the airline is now in a good place again after its latest restructure, and with the diverse Bahraini economy booming, passenger traffic is on the rise, soaring by 10% last year to 8.1 million.
In fact, Al-Binfalah refers to 2014 as “a remarkable year” due to the healthy upturn in traffic driven by new routes launched by Gulf Air and others.
And with the airport predicting that passenger numbers will rise by around 5% to 10% per annum for at least the next three years, BAC has taken the huge decision to invest $1 billion on upgrading the airport to ensure that it is more than capable of meeting future demand.
As a result, its soon to be completed new master plan will include a modernisation programme that includes plans for a new state-of-the-art passenger terminal to help fulfil the Kingdom’s vision to become a regional hub for financial, cultural and aviation services.
The new terminal will raise Bahrain’s capacity to 14mppa, although it will initially be equipped to accommodate up to 12mppa when opens in late 2018.
Also on the agenda are plans to enhance the airfield and add new facilities ranging from a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) base, fuel farm, fire rescue station and two multi-storey car parks to a central utilities centre and new power sub-stations and water treatment plant.
Indeed, such is the size of the project that BAC is effectively building a new gateway on the existing airport site and Al-Binfalah expects that it will transform the airport and people’s perceptions of it.
He says: “I promise you that the new terminal building will be very special and position the airport to be at the forefront of providing an exceptional passenger experience.
“We are creating a boutique airport in the sense that passengers will feel the difference when they arrive here and experience our facilities as compared to others. Walking distances will be short, processing times quick and easy, and customer service standards high.”
Construction of the new Aéroports de Paris Ingénierie (ADPi) designed terminal is expected to start in September and take 36 months to complete ahead of a 2018 opening.
At 201,000sqm it will be nearly four times the size of the existing 1970s built terminal it will replace and boast a 4,600sqm Departures Hall, centrally located 9,000sqm retail, duty free and F&B zone area, five E-gates for arriving passengers and a host of new airline lounges as well as unique facilities such as a national museum and art gallery.
Both the retail and F&B outlets will also feature a number of local brands to provide a sense of place for visitors, especially the 60% of transfer passengers that never leave the airport.
Al-Binfalah says BAC wants the one-kilometre long building to be Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certified by the US Green Building Council.
It will have 12 gates and be located next to today’s distinctive ATC tower and air traffic control building.
ADPi won the international tender to design the terminal and supervise its construction. Hill International is the programme manager. BAC is overseeing the project on behalf of Bahrain’s Ministry of Transportation and Telecommunications.
He notes that BAC is currently considering what to do with the existing terminal building, part of which has to be demolished for the new one, with one potential option being to use it as a dedicated Low-Cost Carrier (LCC) facility.
All add up to a sizeable investment in the airport, but Al-Binfalah is quick to point out that Bahrain is not alone in its commitment to upgrading its aviation infrastructure, noting that regional investment in airports is taking place “from Kuwait in the north all the way to Oman in the south and throughout the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.
Upon completion of the first eight-gate phase of the new terminal in 2018, the airport will be equipped to handle up to 12 million passengers per annum, the total rising to 14mppa upon the completion of an additional four gates a year later.
It will certainly be needed for although the airport is not expected to beat the record 9mppa it handled in 2010 until 2016, the 8.7 million passengers that are set to pass through its facilities this year will be close to its design capacity.
Al-Binfalah cites the national flag carrier’s resurgence as the key reason for the upturn, although he admits that 2013 was a negative year for the airport due to a number of factors that included the collapse of LCC, Bahrain Air, and the downsizing of Gulf Air after it reduced its fleet to 26 aircraft and axed a number of routes.
Today, Gulf Air boasts a fleet of 28 aircraft and operates services to 42 destinations in 23 countries across a network concentrated on Africa, Asia and Europe.
Its fleet and route network ensure that it is the biggest operator at Bahrain International Airport by some considerable margin, accounting for some 60% of all passengers.
According to Al-Binfalah, Bahrain’s prominent location in the middle of the Gulf region ensures that its airlines primarily serve destinations in the northern Gulf and Saudi Arabia, whose border is just 25 kilometres from the airport.
However, he is keen to get more routes to expand the airport’s appeal and tells Asia-Pacific Airports that he would like to see more new services to Asia and the Far East, in particular China and India.
In fact, the week after this interview, BAC led a trade delegation to China to talk to at least three major Chinese airlines about the possible launch of new services to Bahrain.
Destinations in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – all of which are Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members along with Bahrain – are currently the top routes by volume served from Bahrain.
Next by region is the Indian sub-continent, followed by the wider Middle East and Africa regions, Europe and South East Asia.
Al-Binfalah says that Bahrain has a “strong business case” for launching new routes to Asia, which he concedes is presently underserved at the moment.
With the airport surrounded by the city and little room to expand further, Al-Binfalah knows that it is effectively living on borrowed time before it is replaced by a new off-shore gateway, expected to be sometime around 2030.
Indeed, the site for the new airport has been identified and construction of it will be triggered when passenger traffic hits a certain as yet to be revealed annual figure.
Al-Binfalah, however, insists that BAC will refuse to use this as an excuse to simply run down the clock with the no further improvements to the airport’s infrastructure after the completion of the $1 billion development programme.
“We know what is planned and what we have to do until the new airport is built,” he says. “We currently handle less than 130,000 aircraft movements per annum but I believe we can handle up to 170,000. There is still room to grow on this site that’s for sure.”