In the space of a few years, Queen Alia International Airport (QAIA) went from being one of the region’s worst regarded aviation hubs to one of its best. How did they do it?
Earlier this year, QAIA was voted the best airport in the Middle East for service in the latest Airport Service Quality Awards. The airport also won the award for the regional airport that improved the most in terms of service quality between 2013 and 2014.
QAIA certainly has come a long way since its old terminal was voted one of the 10 worst in the world by Frommer’s travel website. Here, Kjeld Binger, CEO of Airport International Group, which took over management of the airport in 2007, explains how his team managed to reverse the airport’s fortunes, and how they plan to keep building on their success.
How did you achieve such a high rating in the Airport Service Quality Awards survey?
Several factors came into play with regards to our latest rating for 2014, which saw QAIA achieve unprecedented results based on the global Airport Service Quality Survey. At the original terminal we were ranking at 186th place worldwide, which was pretty far down the list and very unsatisfactory.
To drastically turn things around, we built a new terminal, which in my opinion was the most important milestone in terms of achieving advanced rankings. Moving forward, it was a matter of instilling a mentality that focuses on premium service quality among employees, including myself. It is extremely important to understand that achieving excellence is a collaborative effort. However, it doesn’t end there. As an airport operator, we make the investment, construct the facilities, establish the infrastructure, and then work towards maintaining them, after which we leave them to our stakeholders to utilize, whether they are ground handlers, customs, immigration, airlines or others. We are somewhat of a custodian, sustaining and safeguarding the infrastructure for our stakeholders. As such, it is key to ensure that they remain in alignment with our quality policies and mentality, something that is achieved through ongoing training and awareness courses. Our newest ranking is not just a matter of having a clean or illuminated terminal, but it is also a matter of having smiling customs officers, polite immigration personnel, and a friendly attitude across the board.
What are your latest airport traffic figures?
Unfortunately, there has been a significant drop in inbound tourism to Jordan, as well as in transfer passengers traveling through the Kingdom. This is attributed to two main reasons, the first of which is Royal Jordanian’s decision to cancel multiple routes due to the prevalent geopolitical situation throughout the region, which resulted in a major decrease in the transfer segment. And the second of which is a general slump in inbound tourism. During the month of May, QAIA traffic experienced a decline slightly above 6 percent, and between January and May of this year it witnessed an estimated 8 percent drop. We do not take these traffic figures lightly, however, I don’t think there is much we can do. It is a difficult situation that is beyond our control.
How much has regional unrest weighed down passenger numbers?
In my opinion, regional unrest has played a major role in weighing down passenger numbers at QAIA, because as far as global aviation development goes, airports in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha, all of which serve a much larger portion of global traffic, are not as affected and are still growing.
Considering these challenges, where do you see things headed in the future?
Despite the obstacles we are currently facing, our future outlook remains very positive. We are well aware that we have momentary issues with traffic growth at this particular stage. However, I have great faith in Jordan and its prospects, and I am confident that by 2030 we will have more than doubled our traffic to 16 million passengers at least. We firmly believe that Jordan will prosper, and together with other large-scale foreign investment projects currently underway, we will effectively bolster the local tourism sector and enable Jordan to realize its full potential.
How can you maintain your position in light of expanding Gulf hubs?
I think that QAIA’s conveniently smaller size represents a huge advantage. The challenge facing large hubs is that walking distances are often very long, and when you have people who are slightly unhappy about something, they tend to not respond very nicely, even if quality is up to par. I think for most big hubs, this poses a real issue.
I am very excited to see how things will go for Abu Dhabi International Airport when it completes its mid-field terminal in 2017. I have no doubt that it will intensify efforts to regain its previous position as a Middle Eastern hub, and will try to compete fiercely on its transfer product.
In this regard, I believe that QAIA is in pretty good shape. In 2016, we will be inaugurating our new terminal, which will introduce new features and operations currently unavailable in the terminal we have today. Once the extension is completed, we will have proper remote gates with proper bus connections, and I would say probably 80 percent of all QAIA passengers will depart and arrive through a boarding gate. We will also be installing travellators to ensure easier access for passengers, consequently giving us a major competitive advantage. From an infrastructure perspective, we will also be making a lot of improvements, all of which will help us maintain a fairly high global ranking within the upcoming years.
How is the second expansion phase of the terminal progressing?
With an initial deadline to deliver the second expansion phase set for July 2016, we are pleased to say that we are well ahead of schedule and that the inauguration can be expected to take place between August and September of next year. At this rate, we might even be able to operate at least part of the new extension by this time next year.
Air Arabia Jordan recently began using QAIA as a new hub. How important a development is this for the airport and Jordan in general?
Air Arabia’s choice to utilize QAIA as a hub will significantly impact Jordan on two main fronts, first off by boosting regional competition. When a low-cost carrier settles at an airport, things start changing for the better, with business attracting more business in what can be described as a snowball effect. Secondly, with the introduction of a low-cost carrier, Royal Jordanian will be up against greater competition and will be encouraged to enhance performance and offer cheaper flights. I am very optimistic about this new development, which I am confident will positively impact all relevant stakeholders.
Efforts seem to be underway to help Jordan’s troubled tourism sector. What role can QAIA help play in this?
As the Kingdom’s prime aviation gateway, QAIA plays an essential role in stimulating the local tourism sector. One way to achieve this is to attract and accommodate a larger number of regional and international airlines by developing new route incentive schemes that encourage carriers to operate flights through QAIA. If this creates new routes between Amman and other cities worldwide, then we are more than happy to offer rebates on landing fees, marketing support, and so on.
Furthermore, AIG has been working closely with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Jordan Tourism Board to see how we can all join forces with other relevant entities and authorities within the tourism industry, such as hotels and tour operators, in order to develop and promote more focused tourism packages.
Finally, given the political circumstances affecting our neighboring countries, Jordan has witnessed a huge influx of visitors from the GCC region. For this reason, I think we all need to come together and ride the wave with stronger marketing campaigns and promotional offers.