Contractors flag unique challenge of airport jobs

Design change flexibility and a security two key issues, says industry

Airport buildings have many important 'stakeholders' say consultants and contractors.
Airport buildings have many important 'stakeholders' say consultants and contractors.

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Construction work on airports is among the most challenging due to a combination of high security, design changes and working within a huge bit of infrastructure that must remain operational at all times, say contractors.

“One of the key issues is that there is generally a specific and very stringent protocol that needs to followed in terms of access, security and lay down areas,” says Barry Lewis, director at ALEC, whose firm has worked on Dubai International Airport and Abu Dhabi International Airport.

“In order to ensure that you are able to have the necessary resources and material available at the specific work front, at the right time, you need to have detailed and accurate planning.”

Airports have become one of the most fertile areas of infrastructure development around the GCC, as governments seek to capitalise on improving services in tourism and logistics.

The Saudi Arabian government is to build five new airports – in Abha, Al Jouf, Qassim, Jazan and Taif – and providing significant expansion work to the King Abdulaziz International Airport near Jeddah and Expansion of Prince Mohammed Bin Abdulaziz Airport in Madinah among others, part of the US $20 billion dedicated to the sector over the next ten years. A main contract for the expansion to the Al Qurayyat airport is expected to be awarded soon.

Upgrade work in Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as in Al Duqm and Muscat in Oman, has produced a steady stream of contracts for regional and international contractors.

Perhaps unique within infrastructure, airports must remain fully operational during any upgrade work, meaning construction firms need to be neat and discreet with little of the room to work as in other projects.

The logistical issue for contractors should be all linked to the initial planning, added Lewis. “As the airport is operational 24/7 there is very little or no opportunity to have dedicated access to large work fronts, apart from the obvious material and manpower logistical issues, the major risk from an operational and construction point of view is to ensure that there is continuity of the services, both MEP and SAS.

“In many instances the services are not designed with a view to having specific areas or zones isolated, the logistics around this facet needs input and co –operation of all stake holders to ensure the continuity required for the airport to remain fully functional."

“The most important thing about transport projects such as airports is that they’re commercial operations,” says Arman Farahmand-Razavi, director of transport planning at Ramboll Middle East, a design engineering consultancy. “There are different stakeholders, and an airport has a number of sources of revenue – not just the landing slot but the car rental and everything else.”

These “stakeholders” – including customs, baggage handling and retail outlets – make it is a truly mixed use project, he said, adding that contractors are working within a very secure environment, with specific protocols for the movement of people and goods, as well as waste management. These different counterparties may give input as to their requirements at different times, meaning both consultant and contractor needs to be flexible, according to the leading firms.

“Effectively building an airport revolves around shareholder management,” adds Ramsay Abbassi, Middle East director at Murray & Roberts, of the preliminary organisation between client and users. “The building of the structure is straightforward, though how you fill it is the issue.”

The sub-contracting market is also different, the industry added, pointing out that there are a umber of specialist providers –such as makers of baggage handling systems, that might have a global perspective when working on airport projects but no regional presence.

Farahmand-Razavi said as a consultant there would be a few specialist the company may work with a few times, but that it was important to give the client a range of service options.

Lewis at ALEC, which as a company has a wide range of additional services such as MEP and fit-out, said the company would “try to engage as many of our related businesses on our projects as possible”, but this depends largely on the procurement strategy of the clients.

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