Tom Allett reports from Bahrain, an airport with regional ambitions.
Located in the Persian Gulf, near the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of Bahrain is an archipelago of 40 islands with Manama as its capital city. Oil has long since replaced pearls as the nation’s main economic pillar and today its business ambitions are beginning to be noticed despite years of being overshadowed by its bigger and richer neighbours.
Bahrain International (BAH) is the only commercial airport serving the 275 sq mile (712 km2), nation and its population of around 655,000, though the kingdom does have military airfields. BAH is situated approximately 4 miles (7km) north of Manama and commercial flying can be traced back to 1927, but it was an Imperial Airways’ service operated in 1932 that led to its claims to be the Middle East’s oldest international airport. Bahrain International claimed another page in the history books on January 21, 1976, when it was the destination for British Airways’ first commercial Concorde supersonic service.
By Northern European standards, Bahrain has hot and humid summers and mild winters. Temperatures hit the mid-30s Celsius on a daily basis from July to September, and vary between 15˚C to 24˚C during the rest of the year. On average it only rains here for ten days per year so it’s not surprising that Bahrain is a popular destination for sun-seekers, though the fact that only around 62% of the population are Bahrainis also adds to the level of international air traffic.
The current terminal building was completed in 1994, so although it isn’t particularly old compared to some other major facilities I could name, it is true to say that BAH is rather showing its age. Its theoretical design capacity is 7 million, but it is already handling approximately 8.8 million passengers a year, so several improvement projects have been launched recently. Shortly before this edition went to press it was announced that work on a second terminal with the capacity to handle 5 million passengers will start early next year.
Currently around 68% of its traffic travels with Gulf Air, the remainder use local low-cost-carrier Bahrain Air and various foreign airlines. The seven daily services provided by Qatar Airways represents the highest number operated by the foreign airlines, but in terms of total passenger numbers, Dubai is the most popular route, accounting for around 600,000 passengers a year, with Doha in second position with 450,000 travellers, while Kuwait lies in third place with around 220,000.
Work to upgrade the airport’s single 13,000ft (3,962m) runway to accept the Airbus A380 was completed in the summer of 2007, while at the same time lighting was brought up to CATII status at both ends. With BAH situated adjacent to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, CATIII conditions are very rarely encountered, so its management team decided that a CAT III ILS was unnecessary. The busiest period for movements is from 18:00 to 23:00 when the majority of the long-haul services arrive, but the hours between 08:00 and 11:00 are also slot restricted.
Because much of the airport is surrounded by either almost open land or water, it doesn’t have too many ‘neighbours’ but it does respect those it does have, namely the people living in the residential area lying to the south. Although Bahrain International is a 24/7 operation, Stage II noise category aircraft are banned between midnight and 06:00 local and no engine runs are allowed. The only exceptions to that rule are by special arrangement for the occasional aid/humanitarian flights.
Inside the terminal, executive lounges are provided by Gulf Air and Cathay Pacific but there is also the opportunity to use the Dilmun pay-on-entry lounge for those travelling with airlines handled by BAH’s dominant ground handling provider, Bahrain Airport Services. There is also an impressive centralised check-in area for Gulf Air’s Premium Class passengers, plus a business centre, a 19-room Transotel and a wide range of shops and restaurants.
BAH also has an on-site airport hotel, the Movenpick.
In the midst of the current global economic crisis, recent traffic figures show that despite a drop in passenger numbers, Middle Eastern routes are faring better than those in Europe, America or Asia. No airlines have pulled out from BAH recently, indeed, Gulf Air has just launched a twice-daily Bangkok service.
Competition for traffic – business or pleasure – is fierce in this region, with the airports of Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), Doha (Qatar), Dubai (United Arab Emirates) and Kuwait City (Kuwait), all aiming to be the primary gateway to the Middle East.
Clearly the UAE’s Dubai is currently the busiest in the region and despite the financial downturn impacting its immediate development plans, it is likely to stay ahead of the rest for years to come. Nevertheless, while Bahrain’s airport is dwarfed by those of some of its neighbours, its management team realises that small can be beautiful in the traveller’s eye. So, while it is embarking on a redevelopment that should double its size, the fact that it will remain much smaller than some of its competitors is being promoted as a positive feature.
In May 2008 a BD18.5 million (US$49m) contract was signed for the construction of new wide-body airliner parking bays to be built over a 60-week period. Two new airbridges will be A380 capable. Building work has already started on the remote stands and is being carried out by the Haji Hassan Group. There will be new stands for 17 small A320-type aircraft or perhaps, eight wide-body jets.
More noticeable from the passengers’ point of view is that the Bahrain Duty Free shopping area is also undergoing a significant expansion.
Recently the Bahraini government announced its economic vision for the years up to 2030. It basically envisages that the nation’s economy will move away from its reliance on oil and head more towards financial and business services, tourism and a growth in industrial capability. Critics say the 2030 plan lacks detailed statistics, and at the moment the same can be said for the state-owned airport’s proposed development, but perhaps more will be revealed soon.
Bahrain Air – the nation’s first privately owned low-cost-carrier (LCC) – was launched on February 1, 2008. At the time the Chairman of its Board of Directors, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Abdulla Alkhalifa said the airline would set a new standard in its category, offering both Premium and Economy Classes, while tapping the huge base of passengers flying to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and African and Indian subcontinent destinations. In common with the product offered by legacy airlines, Bahrain Air’s Premium passengers receive complimentary snacks and refreshments, invitations to Premium Lounges at all departure airports and automatic entry into the airlines’ Frequent Flyer Programme.
Backed by investors from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia with 68% and 32% shareholding respectively, the airline set out to serve 13 destinations with 140 flights weekly across the region with its all-Airbus A320 fleet. It was competing to win an estimated 10,000 low-cost passengers per month who were already travelling with the existing carriers serving Bahrain. According to Bahrain Air’s three-year plan, the airline will have seven aircraft by the end of 2009, with three more due for delivery in 2010.
The carrier’s Managing Director Ibrahim Alhamer once held a senior position with Gulf Air and is a well-known name in the region’s aviation circles. When celebrating Bahrain Air’s first anniversary at a ceremony earlier this year he said: “During the first year since its inauguration, we have been able to provide customers with world class airline services at reasonable costs and achieved the target of carrying 404,000 passengers at the end of the first year of operation. Consequently the returns were rewarding, thanks to our hard-working staff and determined goals.” He reviewed the milestones the company had achieved over the past year, and announced plans for new destinations, fleet expansion and new products – all of which was capped off in true low-cost fashion, with the offer of 11,111 tickets available for 1BD (US$2.65) plus taxes.
As mentioned earlier, the fact that Bahrain International is much smaller than some of its regional competitors means that it can offer time benefits to travellers – passengers can usually reach the car park within 15 minutes of their aircraft arriving on stand. Its published minimum connecting time (MCT) is 60 minutes, but its compactness enables Gulf Air to offer an MCT of 40 minutes. However, the airline is aiming to reduce this to 30 minutes – its Premium passengers are already offered a ten-minute check-in at Bahrain
Gulf Air’s CEO Björn Näf told Airports International: “It’s a small airport and very convenient for travellers. Using the London flight as an example the distance that the individual passenger has to travel from check-in, through Customs to their gate is only around 50 metres.
“This [Bahrain] isn’t Dubai where it takes you around three hours to get to the airport and then another two hours to make your way through the check-in process and down to the departure gate. Here, check-in within ten minutes and ‘check-out’ in 15 minutes is what we want to deliver to our premium passengers.”
The airport isn’t ready to consistently deliver that just yet and when asked if the airport authority needed to provide anything in order to make that a reality Mr Näf replied: “Yes, an improvement of the baggage system. While the check-in and -out times are almost achievable already, the baggage delivery, including the screening system need to be better if we are to be able to deliver on transfer times.”
The airport’s cargo operations are dominated by DHL. In all 18 freighters are based at Bahrain and while inter-Gulf routes account for the vast majority of the 400,000 tonnes of freight traffic handled here last year, Iraqi destinations sit at the top of the tonnage list.
Plans are being outlined for the creation of a new ‘Cargo Oasis’, which would greatly enhance what is already on offer. The airport authority already owns the land where it would be built, and says it intends to provide the new facility with a high-speed rail link. The presence of Bahrain’s three shipping ports; its causeway road to Saudi Arabia, and a potential second causeway linking it to Doha would certainly support any ambition to become a logistics hub.
The forthcoming second terminal will be built opposite the Muharraq headquarters of Bahrain Airport Services, bringing the total theoretical passenger capability to 12 million. An Airport Centre retail area will also be constructed on the site of the current car park, adding shops, cinemas and 3,000 parking spaces in a multi-storey car park.
Bahrain Airport Company Chief Executive Officer Dr Osama Alali said it should be ready by 2013. He added that the new building would be part of a first phase of the airport’s expansion, which will push BAH’s passenger capacity to 28 million by 2038. The project is being carried out in close co-ordination with Civil Aviation Affairs as part of Bahrain’s Vision 2030 national development programme and concept designs have already been completed by the British company LDY. Architects should be appointed before the year’s end to draw up detailed plans for the airport, while the main contractor is expected to be named in early 2010. It is also anticipated that the growth will bring an overall improvement in aviation services, including a VIP terminal and a maintenance centre for small aircraft.
The expansion will ultimately give the airport 110 stands, including 87 with contact gates. Currently there are only 25 stands, including seven air-bridges.
Dr Al-Ali added: “BAH is keen to attract more international airlines to Bahrain. The airport now handles 36 airlines and several other seasonal ones. In partnership with the CAA, we shall promote Bahrain as a destination for tourists.”
Tom Allett reports from Bahrain, an airport with regional ambitions.