Ready for action - Hamad International Airport
Hamad International is finally open to the public
Rounding the bend on the overpass driving into Hamad International Airport (HIA), the $15.5bn facility almost glistens in the morning sun, writes Beatrice Thomas.
Framed by azure-coloured, man-made lakes spouting water from copper fountains, meticulously landscaped gardens and rows of white sun shades marking out 7,600 parking bays, the typically “Gulf- glamorous” first impression could not be more different from the old Doha airport through which I had only 10 minutes earlier entered Qatar.
Bused in from the plane to the terminal and greeted by a snaking customs queue, crammed baggage claim area and busy arrivals hall, the tired-looking terminal was hardly fit for a city that would in eight years be hosting the FIFA World Cup.
The difference in the two experiences has been nine years in the making. Thrice delayed in opening – first by a complete redesign that almost doubled its planned capacity and then by a number of disputes with contractors and “regulatory issues” approving the facility, on April 30 Doha finally got its new airport.
The facility, described as Qatar’s biggest single infrastructure project to date, was at last open to passengers as 10 airlines started commercial operations in the first stage of a phased transfer.
“Every day we showed patience in order to face challenges, which have made our willingness even stronger to establish this venue that will be the pride of this and future generations,” committee chairman Abdul Aziz Mohamad Al Noaimi told guests and media gathered in the new terminal.
“Rest assured that this is going to be Qatar’s gate to the world.”
By numbers alone, HIA is an impressive feat. Built on a 29 sqkm site, of which 60 percent is land reclaimed from the Arabian Gulf, the HIA and wider Airport City project comprises 100 buildings, including the 600,000sqm passenger terminal, the 12,000sqm Emiri Terminal, ancillary facilities, a 150,000sqm aircraft maintenance hangar for 13 aircraft, a 85m-high control tower, 2,100sqm, a 50m-high glass public mosque situated above the lagoon and a four-storey catering facility branded “one of the largest in the world”.
The terminal, made up of three concourses (A, B & C) and 33 contact gates to accommodate an expected 30 million passengers annually, will subsequently increase to five concourses and 65 contact gates, including eight for the A380. That will mean the airport can cope with 50 million passengers a year when Concourses D & E are finished in an estimated two-and-a-half years.
When fully open, HIA will comprise 16 lounges, more than 100 food and beverage and retail outlets, two transit hotels, a swimming pool, a luxury spa and squash courts.
In a nod to Qatar’s affinity for the arts, the airport – which is arguably more “designer” in style than Dubai Airport’s Terminal 3 building – has, in conjunction with the Qatar Museums Authority, procured 28 art installations, including the famous $6.8m giant yellow teddy bear bought at a Christie’s New York auction.
The bear, which previously sat in front of the Seagram Building on New York’s Park Avenue, is now the first thing passengers coming through the 50 customs and 20 e-gates see as they take the escalator down to the passenger-only departure zone.
Since the launch, Doha authorities have announced five more airlines are set to move operations to HIA on May 14 and 15 with all other airlines, including national carrier, Qatar Airways, which will also officially run HIA, to begin operations on May 27.
It is the result of “strong will” and “motivation”, Al Noaimi said, but there is no getting around the fact that the lead-up to its launch has been a challenging time.
Initially conceived as a project in 2005 in response to rapid transit growth created by Qatar Airways’ expanding global network and the state’s own tourism ambitions, the airport was originally due to open in 2009.
It was later pushed back to the end of 2012, then April 1 2013 - when the opening was cancelled one hour before the first plane was to touch down - and the end of last year before opening last month.
The 77,000sqm, two-level cargo terminal had started operations in December 2013, but launching the passenger terminal was always the main game.
Almost fittingly, the first commercial flight was late. A delay on the first “official” arrival – a Qatar Airways A330 plane carrying dignitaries on a short flight taking off from the old airport and landing at one of two new parallel runways at HIA– meant flydubai flight FZ015, the first paying-passenger plane to land at HIA, was subsequently also 40 minutes behind schedule.
However, amid applause and a traditional water cannon salute by the Gulf state’s civil aviation fire fighting service, it all appeared to be inconsequential.
As long-time Doha residents pointed out, the fact those passengers could, for the first time, use an air bridge to quickly disembark from the aircraft, dodging the elements in the process - not to mention a long bus journey from aircraft to terminal - was in itself much cause for celebration.
Al Noami noted that the landing of that first Qatar Airways flight reflected the work of many citizens who had worked hard behind the scenes to “make this dream come true and establish this unique venue” - one which he believed would make headlines around the world.
“Today we achieved what we promised, we are opening the airport,” he said.
While true, and the launch has attracted plaudits, the airport project itself has been subject of a lot of unwanted headlines for the Qataris over the years amid a series of spats with contractors, the most high profile of which ended in a $250m lawsuit against the airport.
That ongoing claim, filed by Lindner Depa Interiors, the joint venture interiors specialists , in September 2013 came after its contract to develop Qatar’s airport was cancelled the previous year.
LDI, which consists of Dubai-based Depa and Germany’s Lindner AG, had originally won a $250m deal to fit out 17 lounges at HIA in 2011, but the deal was terminated in June 2012 after LDI refused to accept new contractual terms that it said included dropping all extension-of-time claims and related costs incurred as a result of “very lengthy delays to our works caused by others and acceleration costs”.
Depa’s then-CEO, Mohannad Sweid, said at the time of filing the claim with the International Court of Arbitration in Paris that the termination was “wholly unfounded” and the subsequent lack of response by the New Doha International Airport (NDIA), the official project management company, to nine months of attempted resolution left it no choice but to seek compensation.
For its part, LDI said public comments made against the joint venture by Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, who was at the time heading the NDIA steering committee, in December 2012 and April 2013 “caused significant financial and reputation damage to our company”, adding that it was denied full access to the project site for the first nine months of a 16-month contract.
Known for his candour, Al Baker has not been backward in apportioning blame for the delays, though publicly no one involved in the high-profile project has fully explained why it fell so behind schedule or the specifics behind last year’s 11th-hour cancellation.
As well as the comments levelled at LDI, in which Al Baker threatened to file a $600m legal claim against the JV for allegedly “badly defaulting” and delaying HIA by up to a year, he has also said following the April 2013 delay that US contractor Bechtel had been “complacent” in meeting regulatory requirements laid down by the airline and the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority.
That was an arugument Bechtel rejected when its EMEA president David Welch claimed in September 2013 that the contractor’s work at HIA was “virtually complete”.
Nonetheless, Al Baker repeated the claim as recently as May 6 in a television interview with Dubai One, saying it had “a project manager who was very laid back, which caused all these delays”.
“We have to put that behind, we are now open for business and this will definitely raise the bar for airports around the region and of course around the world,” he told the news channel.
At the launch, Al Baker explained that the delays were the result of “certain issues raised by authorities about international standards and those needed to be addressed”. He had made plain two years earlier that he did not want the systemic problems which had hampered Germany’s troubled Brandenburg airport project to be repeated in Qatar.
Whatever the exact or combination of reasons, the delays no doubt seriously affected the airline’s expansion plans. Hampered by a lack of space and inability to execute a growth strategy to keep up with neighbouring rivals Emirates and Etihad, Al Baker admits it has resulted in huge revenue losses, inconvenienced passengers and cost the airline its Skytrax “Airline of the Year” status in 2013.
“Our growth was blocked by the capacity at the current airport,” he says in response to a question from Arabian Business at Arabian Travel Market in Dubai, five days after the HIA launch. “With the new airport it gives us a huge space to start expansion.”
However, he adds the airline’s expansion does not only relate to the airport. “It also relates to how fast all our aircraft will be able to be delivered to us, so it is really a chicken and egg story,” he says.
Al Baker, who revealed the look of the national carrier’s A380 first-class seats at ATM, says delivery of its first super jumbo is expected on May 31 and he hopes it will be used on the Doha to Heathrow route from June 17. All up, Qatar Airways has 13 A380s to come in an order book that includes 300 aircraft worth $60bn.
Now flying to 138 destinations with a fleet of 134 aircraft, to be expanded to more than 170 aircraft by 2016, it is planning to grow its network by seven destinations in the coming months – adding Al Hofuf in Saudi Arabia, Istanbul in Turkey, Edinburgh in Scotland, Miami and Dallas in the US, Haneda in Japan, and Djibouti – as well as launching much-awaited domestic operations in Saudi Arabia through new airline, Al Maha, in November, which will begin with 10 A320 aircraft in the first 12 months.
Expanding on comments first made by officials at the HIA launch, Al Baker says eventually Qatar Airways could occupy the HIA passenger terminal exclusively, but a second terminal to be built for all other airlines will be dictated by how fast demand grows over coming years.
He says renowned British architect Lord Norman Foster is “already planning the final phase of the HIA expansion” ahead of the start of tenders in early 2015, with the final two concourses to be ready in “in just over two-and-a-half years time”.
“We will only have a second terminal at HIA if we feel that the demand is more ahead of the capacity we have in the airport,” he says, adding this will take into account demand generated by the World Cup.
“If that happens, yes, we will have another terminal and then all other airlines will move into the new terminal and Qatar Airways will then have an exclusive operation out of the terminal A of HIA.”
Al Baker says authorities could never have guessed when the old Doha International Airport was first expanded in 2001, that five further expansions would be needed.
“We thought that we would expand it and that will suffice until the new airport was ready and then we realised that we had to do five expansions in this period of time and the last one was only a year and a half ago,” he says.
Al Noami says HIA will be capable of handling more than the 50 million passengers a year headline figure. He argues, based on the ability of the old Doha airport to process 17 million passengers annually compared to a capacity of nine million, “we can service up to 70 million passengers”. It would challenge Dubai International and London’s Heathrow, which recorded 75 million and 72.3 million passengers respectively in 2013.
According to an Associated Press report in March, Qatar’s aviation authorities will apply for a US customs preclearance facility to be established at HIA following the opening of a similar scheme in Abu Dhabi in January.
While the UAE’s move – it is only the second country outside North America after Ireland to have a US customs facility - has attracted criticism from some US lawmakers and airline unions arguing it gives unfair advantage to Emirati airlines, Qatar no doubt knows it would be popular and allow passengers to avoid long, time-consuming immigration and customs queues upon arrival in the States.
US Customs and Border Protection director Kevin McAleenan flagged an extension of the system to Dubai in an interview with Bloomberg in February, but the agency has not yet said whether this will further extend to Qatar.
As one of the first airlines to start operating out of Hamad International Airport on April 30, Flydubai CEO Ghaith Al Ghaith says the facility is another tick in the box for the GCC’s aviation sector.
“It’s another compliment to all of us, because we are very proud of this region, whatever has been achieved in terms of airlines, airports and here we go again, another milestone achievement,” he says.
“It can only make things better – more people will travel, it will be easier for people to travel and this is a compliment to the whole sector in this region.”
On April 30 much of the terminal’s offerings were still to be opened, with only one café and a small Qatar Duty Free shop available from the 100 food and beverage outlets HIA is set to contain.
However, some of the passenger facilities were on show. High-tech investment is evident in the internet and television zone - the former looking more like the inside of an Apple store, while separate men’s and women’s quiet rooms, featuring recliner chairs for pre-flight “down time”, is another novel touch.
Still to come, though, are features such as the automated, noiseless, glass-enclosed train, which at 45km/h traverses Concourse C with a capacity of 6,000 passengers per hour, in each direction.
Planning for the wider Airport City is also progressing, with Qatar Transport Minister Jassim Saif Ahmed Al Sulaiyi saying part of the old airport would make way for “green areas” and new streets, with an aviation faculty and base for Gulf Helicopters also under consideration.
To be developed under a 30-year masterplan, Airport City will be a series of four business, aviation, logistics and residential districts linking airside and landside developments and housing 200,000 people.
However, Al Baker insists that it is HIA that will “have a huge impact” on Qatar’s aviation industry, “give a huge boost to Qatar Airways” and provide passengers with “one of the most advanced, sophisticated, passenger-friendly airports anywhere in the world”.
“This will itself become a destination for a lot of passengers to come and sample what we have to offer,” he says.
Now open, the spotlight will be on whether Doha’s new infrastructure feat can live up to those words. So far the answer seems to be that it can.
HIA FAST FACTS
- 62mn Cubic metres of sand used for reclamation
- 17mn Metres of electrical cabling
- 2.3 million Cubic metres of concrete
- 140,000 Tonnes of steel
- 330,000 Metres of fibre-optic cabling
- 44 Kilometres of roads
- 21 Numbers of bridges
- 1,628 Street lighting poles inscribed with the words of the Qatari national anthem
- 600,000 Size of the passenger terminal, in square metres
- 50 million Passenger capacity at final build-out
- 138 Number of check-in counters
- 70 Number of passport control counters & e-gates
- 5 Number of concourses at final build-out
- 65 Number of boarding gates at final build-out
- 4,850 Length of the new eastern runway, in metres
- 28,000 Retail and F&Bspace, in square metres
- 9 Number of baggage carousels
- 7,594 Number of parking bays
- 2,100 Size, in square metres, of the public mosque
- $15.5bn Estimated development cost of Hamad International Airport.
- 138 Number of destinations served by Qatar Airways.