Taking off

Airport developments have risen sharply. Each poses unique challenges.

Airport projects are complicated by the great number of end-user companies.
Airport projects are complicated by the great number of end-user companies.

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Infrastructure projects have dominated the construction industry for the last year and represent much of the big money opportunities for contractors throughout the Gulf. As governments dedicate billions of their respective currencies into developing their underlying facilities, it is in the last quarter that airport projects have come to the fore.

Saudi Arabia, the country that has grown into one of the biggest spenders of the region, has been far in the lead with its plan to build new airports and implement significant expansion to existing hubs.

Last month the country’s General Civil Aviation Authority announced it would build three new airports in Qassim, Abha and Al Jouf. This followed an announcement in September that it would build new airports in Jazan and Taif – a total of five new hubs that indicate the Kingdom is seeking to diversify the centres of its business to other regions beyond the capital, Riyadh, and northern cities such as Dammam.

Last month also saw the start of work on the expansion of the King Abdulaziz International Airport, situated 19km north of Jeddah, began last week. The first phase of the contract, worth SAR 15.12 billion and awarded to Saudi Binladen, will include the construction of a 670,000m2 terminal with 94 aircraft bays, as the airport boosts its annual capacity from 17 to 30 million passengers.

Airport openings in Al Ula, Tabuk, Najran and Madinah (Prince Muhammad International Airport) are also expected this year, some of them regional bases. A tender for the main contract for Al Qurrayat Airport is also due as construction is scheduled for the third quarter. The country is to spend $20billion over the next ten years in the sector.

Oman, whose infrastructure spending in the last year has included water and road projects, will see work on its airport in Al Duqm, as well as upgrade work on the main Muscat International Airport, including a new terminal. Further development to airports in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha has also been a feature of the respective countries’ domestic plans as they emerge from the effects of a global slump.

Building or expanding airports present a number of specific challenges to consultants and contractors – the first of which is that the airports must be still fully operational during work.

“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.”

He points out that due to these wide and miscellaneous fixed end-users of the main building – including customs, baggage handling and retail outlets – it is a truly mixed use project. He adds that contractors are working within a very secure environment, with specific protocols for the movement of people and goods, as well as waste management.

“Effectively building an airport revolves around the issue of shareholder management,” says Ramsay Abbassi, Middle East director at Murray & Roberts (M&R), of the preliminary organisation between client and users.

“Building the airport structure is straightforward, though how you fill that airport is the issue.”

M&R has worked on Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 and Concourse 2 and the Etihad Terminal and multi-storey car park at Abu Dhabi Airport. Abbassi explains that, as with any major project, the high number of stakeholders increases the likelihood of changes to the design, occasionally when the construction of the project is quite advanced.

Sachin Kerur, a partner in the Dubai office of law firm Pinsent Masons, says this breadth of different companies is often greatly varied as to when, or if, they give input to the design.

This means that the contract drawn up when it comes to the design work needs to be sufficiently flexible. Sometimes, however, a design firm will need to work to the specifications of a particularly influential stakeholder, through the client’s guidance. He also highlighted the phenomenon of fast-track contracts, drawn up to meet the quick progress targets for airports.

The network of sub-contractors to an airport project is also often unique to the sector. Specialist companies such as Pteris Global, a Singaporean firm that makes baggage handling machinery, have been gradually increasing their portfolio of projects in the region on the back of this rise in airport investment.

In July 2009 it was awarded a $12.3 million design-and-build contract for Amman’s Queen Alia International Terminal in Jordan, another airport that has seen a rise in passenger flow.

Arinc, which provides communications systems, including supplying such sectors as the rail industry, has also been gaining in market share. Abbassi points out that due to the specialism of some of the companies, and their global reach, they typically don’t have a regional presence.

Mauno Napari, regional director for infrastructure at Ramboll Middle East, says some of the services are plane-specific. “For example the introduction of the Airbus A380 requires quite specific demands on designs.”

Napari adds that it is still necessary to present a wide range of different service providers to the client, rather than “locking them in” to a specific sub-contractor.

The specific use of the airport can also affect its design and construction. Farahmand-Razavi says an expansion that is focused on tourist traffic would need a different approach to an airport intended mainly for commuters, which may be smaller structures overall.

These two types might also be very different to airports that will primarily be used as logistics hubs, which would need all related infrastructure in place that would efficiently move goods – such as those perishable – in the shortest possible time and distance.

Perhaps most uniquely among other types of infrastructure projects, the number of different aspects of an airport means that both a consultancy and a contractor may gain repeat work in quick succession.

“Airports are continuous projects. They are going on all the time, often over extended periods.There is always something happening, during which time the airport always has to remain operational. So you might work on one for several years but on different areas and on different contracts.

“There is the chance of repeat work – however, it does depend on the airport and depends whether it is a renovation or an entirely new airport from scratch.”

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