Exclusive Interview: Doha Hamad Intl Airport Chief on Expansion, Blockade, Taking Over Foreign Airports, & More

Qatar’s Hamad International Airport (commonly referred to as ‘HIA’, despite the official airport code being ‘DOH’) in the capital city of Doha continues to compete as one of the world’s most prominent airport hubs. Home to one of the largest full-service carriers on the Earth, this year Doha’s airport marked five year of operations — but it hasn’t come without difficulties. Guiding one of the world’s largest hub airports through turbulent times, unprecedented geopolitical disputes, and global industry challenges, Eng. Badr Al Meer is the airport’s Chief Operating Officer.

Al Meer, one of the most senior Qataris in aviation, is also part of the ACI Asia-Pacific Regional Board —  a global trade association of the world’s airports.

In an exclusive sit-down at his Hamad International Airport office, Al Meer reflected on the last two years of operations at HIA, arguably the most challenging period in its history. Al Meer also revealed the expansion plans for the already-large airport, set to commence as early as January 2020, plus his outlook as a C-level aviation industry leader on the complexities facing the industry today.

Al Meer started by stating he believes they were able to “manage the hiccups” over the last few years.

The blockade of Qatar was initiated by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in June 2017. Overnight the four countries cut all air, land, and sea links to Qatar, and immediately banned Qatari-registered aircraft from operating in their respective airspaces — a breach of ICAO’s Chicago Convention, which clearly states that countries must never discriminate against the nationality of an aircraft.

Despite the lack of direct flights to cities in those four countries, Cairo remains Doha’s best performing unserved route, with over 150,000 passengers travelling between Doha and Cairo over the last year. Passengers travelling to Cairo are mostly transiting via Kuwait and Oman — the two Gulf countries who have remained neutral throughout the ‘Gulf Crisis’ dispute. As a result, it’s unsurprising that Kuwait has become Doha’s busiest route, with almost 1.15 million seats from Qatar Airways, Kuwait Airways, and Jazeera Airways. Muscat closely follows as the airport’s second busiest route, with 900,000 seats.

I asked Al Meer if the airport would welcome back airlines belonging to blockading countries, such as Saudia Airlines, and Emirates, with open arms should the blockade end. He insisted that the airport is an international airport and therefore would welcome all airlines — but goes on to highlight the inital damaging impacts of the sudden loss of multiple airline operators — enough to significanly hurt the airport, and it’s largest airline.

Al Meer exclusively revealed that, following a recovery period, and with passenger numbers growing to higher levels than pre-blockade, Hamad International Airport will now press on with confirmed expansion plans. Al Meer is targeting to have awarded all contracts by the end of 2019, and the first phase will see an expansion to the existing terminal — set to significantly increase capacity.

While the current terminal was originally designed to accommodate 28 million passengers per year, it’s handling well-beyond its capacity at almost 38 million passengers per year.

Most passengers at this airport are travelling with Qatar Airways, who have 65% of the share at HIA. Indigo, the largest airline in India by passengers carried and fleet size, is the second largest operator at the airport, followed by Air India, Kuwait Airways, Sri Lankan Airlines, and Royal Jordanian.

Located at the north end of the terminal, the upcoming expansion is set to link Concourse D and Concourse E, which will increase the airport’s overall capacity to around 60 million passengers per year.

Al Meer hints the upcoming expansion will offer passengers something ‘unique’ — highlighting that all work should be complete prior to the Fifa 2022 World Cup — a relatively ambitious timeline, given the tournament begins in less than 38 months.

Doha’s expansion to the existing terminal will eventually feature new lounges, dining and relaxation areas, as well as visionary features to take on Singapore Changi Airport’s new marvel, ‘The Jewel”.

The Jewel has taken the international airport hub world by storm, a ‘Rain Vortex’ feature linked to three of Singapore Changi airport’s passenger terminals, the centrepiece is the world’s tallest indoor waterfall surrounded by a terraced forest setting. Since its opening, hundreds of thousands of passengers, as well as member sof the public, have flocked to see it in action.

Even Al Meer can’t help but praise Singapore Changi’s achievements with the iconic airport feature, before adding Doha has plans for a ‘Jewel’ of its own…

When Hamad International Airport opened 5 years ago, the terminal was optimised for Qatar Airways’ A380 operations. Dedicated 2-level boarding gates separate Economy and Business Class/First Class passengers, allowing a more efficient boarding process, and enhancing the premium experience for passengers. A380s operate to several destinations from HIA, but most importantly to London. The route between Doha and London Heathrow has become the seventh highest revenue route in the world, with the service making over $700 million in FY2018.

But with Airbus set to end all A380 production from 2021, and Qatar Airways GCEO Akbar Al Baker exclusively revealing to Aviation Analyst that the first in-service A380 will be retired as soon as 2024 — what impact will the loss of A380 jets have on an airport designed to accomodate the superjumbo?

As a state, Qatar is a serial investor in overseas projects, including in aviation. In fact, the Qatar Investment Authority is a major shareholder in London Heathrow Airport, holding a 20 percent stake. In 2017, the company has invested a further 650 million pounds ($807 million). Qatar Airways, the airline, intend to have a 20 percent stake in Moscow’s Vnukovo International, Russia’s third-largest airport, finalised by the end of the year.

However, Al Meer revealed plans to take future investments in overseas airports further through a rebanded Qatari company named ‘Matar’, the Arabic word for airport. Through Matar, the company intend to not only invest in foreign airports, but cruicially: to operate and manage the airports.

Al Meer hinted that Matar could announce new overseas investments as soon as this year.

Despite obvious challenges, it seems the airport is on track to evolving into an expanded, busier hub by the time the first match kicks off at the World Cup in 2022. For passengers, the expansion may present a renewed passenger experience at Hamad International Airport — but if there’s one certainty, it’s that the industry will see the competition heat up even further between this Gulf hub and its arch ‘transit airport’ rival, Changi Airport in Singapore.

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