Queen Alia International Airport (QAIA)

QAIA: Ready for Lift Off

Now that the second phase of the multimillion-dollar project to expand Queen Alia International Airport (QAIA) is complete, Jordan’s main gateway to the world will be able to smoothly handle rising traffic demand for years to come.

By Laith Abou-Ragheb

Even in an aviation landscape dominated by the mega airports of the Gulf, QAIA has still managed to carve out a niche for itself as a well-regarded regional aviation hub, which is best seen in its steadily rising year-on-year passenger numbers and run of industry awards.

It’s hard to envisage how this success could have been achieved without the root-and-branch overhaul of QAIA that began back in 2007, when Airport International Group (AIG) was awarded a 25-year contract to run and rehabilitate the airport.

The public-private partnership centered on an ambitious $850 million plan to expand and upgrade the airport’s infrastructure.

One of the biggest challenges facing the project was how to carry out the work while ensuring there was minimal disruption to the running of the airport’s day-to-day operations. Planners eventually decided to stagger the project over two separate phases.

The first, and certainly most challenging phase, involved the construction of an entirely new terminal building. The soaring, Norman Foster-designed structure was inaugurated in 2013, and has by all accounts offered a vastly improved travelling experience. QAIA was voted the best airport in the Middle East at the Airport Quality Service Awards for both 2015 and 2016.

The second phase of the expansion project began in 2014 and was finally inaugurated last month. It involved adding around 43,000 square meters to the airport’s total area, mainly through lengthening its two piers. This raised annual passenger capacity from the current 9 million to 12 million passengers, with future plans to increase the capacity even further to 16 million passengers per year.

As a result of the expansion, the total number of gates in operation at QAIA has nearly doubled from 13 to 25. Eight of these are remote gates and 17 are contact gates. The additional nine contact gates are operated from two fixed-link bridges, as well as four new super fixed-link bridges, two of which can accommodate the world’s largest airplane; the Airbus A380.

As well as virtually ending the frustrating practice of sometimes having to be bussed out to planes on the runway, regular users of QAIA will be pleased to learn the second phase has added two business lounges, two duty free areas, and four prayer rooms. Ten additional travelators, 24 escalators, and 18 elevators have also been installed.

At the ceremony held for the opening of the expansion, Minister of Transport Yahya Kasabi said the airport now offered “the highest levels of service to the people of Jordan as well as to guests passing through QAIA throughout their travels across the Kingdom.”

Planning Ahead

In 2015, QAIA dealt with around 7.2 million passengers. AIG CEO Kjeld Binger expects this figure to be 6.5 percent higher at the end of this year. “We are more or less in line with our expectations,” he said.

Kjeld Binger, CEO of Airport International Group

With the expansion now complete, Binger said there’s ample breathing space to handle growing passenger numbers for years to come without the need for additional construction. He expects to hit the facility’s full capacity of 12 million somewhere around 2022, after which extra gates can be added with relative ease. “The airport can very easily jump to 16 or 17 million capacity,” he said.

Binger hopes the latest expansion, coupled with rising traffic, will convince more airlines to consider Amman as a destination. So far this year, three new carriers have started scheduled services: Turkish low-cost carrier Pegasus Airlines, Jordan’s Fly Jordan and, most recently, Sudan’s Tarco Airlines.

On September 25, Emirates Airlines organized a special one-off A380 service to QAIA to mark 30 years of flying to Jordan from its Dubai hub. It was the first time the headline-grabbing double-decker aircraft, which can carry over 500 passengers, touched down at the airport – a milestone which couldn’t have been achieved without the upgrades to the taxi-way brought about as part of the second expansion phase to accommodate the aircraft’s larger than normal wingspan and turning radius.

Kasabi took this as a positive sign for the future. “The decision to bring the Emirates A380 for a one-off flight to Amman is a testament to the competitiveness of Jordan’s aviation infrastructure and strong transport sector,” he said. While Binger said the event would prove quite the publicity coup for QAIA, showing it was truly a world class aviation hub, and one which could soon be receiving a regular scheduled service from Emirates’ flagship aircraft. “It’s an important signal to send that we are there and we can receive you if you want,” he said. “Emirates has been very adamant in their fleet strategy. They are the biggest purchaser of A380s and they use them on shorter routes. Since we have three departures (to Dubai) on Emirates alone every day, then we might see that three of these departures might be cooked into one A380.”

He also pointed out that Emirates aren’t the only big regional airlines operating A380s which might see value in flying to Amman—there’s also Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways, Singapore Airlines, and a host of European carriers.

PPP Success

Private sector involvement in state-owned infrastructure programs is often viewed with wariness by many Jordanians concerned with potential spiralling costs and delays. But Binger said the airport expansion plan stands as a shining example of how PPP projects can be delivered on time and on budget. This should, in his mind, attract more investors to partner with the government on other mega projects in the transport sector. “I think it’s important for potential investors coming to Jordan to see the success of  a PPP that worked and was actually built. This extension was done on budget and on time. This is an amazing strong signal to send to the outside world and to potential investors coming to the country,” he said.

Also, Binger believes the successful expansion should encourage tourism. “It’s extremely important that people come to the country and say: ‘We’re in a difficult region and a difficult area, but these guys are managing quite well and it looks welcoming from every respect.’”

This upbeat outlook can’t mask the reality of having to operate in a region wracked by instability. “It’s very difficult,” Binger conceded. “We see it all around us and now we see issues in Turkey.” Nevertheless, he’s optimistic this could quickly change when and if matters settle down. “I think it will pick up very easily if we see some solid evidence that the unrest is (being pushed) back. I am very confident about that,” he said.

Leaving aside the huge Gulf airports, in terms of size, Binger said QAIA now rivals the airport in Beirut and is beginning to snap at the heels of the one in Tel Aviv. But rather than trying to directly compete with them, he said QAIA would find greater success forging its own unique development path. “I think we want to be our own benchmark,” he said.