Cairo: A New Continental Hub?

A new control tower is nearing completion along with the soon-to-be-opened third parallel runway. (All photos − author)

Ron Kuhlmann visits Cairo and discovers a revitalised airport eager to establish itself as the new gateway to the Middle East and Africa.

A new control tower is nearing completion along with the soon-to-be-opened third parallel runway. (All photos − author)

Cairo − the name reeks of history and intrigue.  Millennia after his demise, King Tut continues to draw millions to ogle his burial relics.  The Great Pyramid of Giza − the sole surviving ‘wonder of the ancient world’ − was even added as an Honorary Candidate to the new list announced in 2007.
But modern Cairo is far more than just a relic of past civilisations.  It is North Africa’s largest city and a global centre of business as well as remaining a magnet for tourism.  Its airport (IATA CAI) is second only to Johannesburg in terms of African traffic and, through the Star Alliance membership of both EgyptAir and South African Airlines, the two airports act as hub anchors at opposite ends of the vast African expanse.  However, CAI’s present status is a relatively recent development, having happened in the first decade of the new century.  As the commercial aviation world continued to evolve in a global economy, the Egyptian Government saw the need to redefine the role the country would play in a changed marketplace and act accordingly.  It was determined that Egypt’s geographic and economic position could be used to leverage a more important role.
In order to fulfil its new goal of being the hub for Africa, the state-owned and run airport has worked with the government-owned carrier to develop its operations and structure.  While each partner has its own goals, staff and budget, both are subsidiaries of the Egyptian Ministry of Transport, creating synergies that derive from a shared owner.
The present links began in 2002 when the Ministry was created along with its associated holding companies and subsidiaries.  By doing so, Egypt brought its air transport sector under a common umbrella and began the task of creating order out of what had previously been a rather chaotic mix.
 
Background
As one example, at the dawn of the 2000s EgyptAir connected around 60 international points.  However, almost two-thirds (39) were only once or twice a week and those destinations having more frequent service − Frankfurt, for instance, with four flights − had a different departure time for each.  Similar schedules existed to all the major European gateways.  This is not a timetable that encourages transit traffic.  The non-stop from New York, arriving CAI at 1630 had limited connectivity even to domestic flights that would encourage through traffic of tourists.
T3 airside incorporates a modern interpretation of classic Egyptian lines.

Another decision that emanated from the new Ministry was the plan to construct a new terminal, updating and supplementing the existing T1 and 2.  Terminal 3 was formally opened in April 2009 (see Airports International, October 2009) and now serves as the terminus for most of EgyptAir’s flights as well as those of its Star Alliance partners.  In January 2010, T2 was closed for three years while a comprehensive refurbishment and upgrade is carried out.  When finished, it will be occupied by non-Star members, and will be operated with T3 as a single system.  Finally, T1 will also get a facelift and continue to deal with primarily Gulf and regional services − including those of EgyptAir.
As the airport proceeded with a master development plan, the national carrier simultaneously upgraded and modernised its fleet while at the same time established a timetable that would actually encourage the use of CAI as a hub.  Central to this plan was the need for EgyptAir to be part of an alliance, thus creating a larger pool of services for passengers to use.  After considering all the options, EgyptAir was invited to join Star in 2007 and was officially welcomed in July 2008.
Now, in 2010, the EgyptAir services to Frankfurt are standardised with a 1035 departure, allowing for numerous connections at that Star hub.  The return flight arrives at CAI in the evening, at which point there are options for onward journeys across Africa.
The airport has also benefited from the Star partnerships.
In 2000, there were two weekly flights to Copenhagen on EgyptAir as well as a single flight each week to Stockholm.  Now Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo all have regular services utilising an Austrian codeshare over Vienna.  Additionally, the morning EgyptAir London flight is now supplemented by a daily BMI Airbus A330 in the afternoon and the wider European market is available via daily A340s operated by Swiss International Airlines to Zurich and Lufthansa to Frankfurt.  Air access to Egypt has never been easier.
The EgyptAir Lounge is comfortable and provides panoramic views of the apron.

All the Star partners share the new EgyptAir lounge in T3, a comfortable facility located between the two piers, with excellent views of the ramp.  Extensive duty-free shopping is also available in all the terminals.
But there is a long way yet to go.  At present, only 5% of the passengers handled by CAI are in transit − an astonishingly low number for an airport that seeks to be a continental hub.  To further establish CAI as a transfer airport, EgyptAir continues to modernise and expand its fleet − with more long-haul aircraft on order.  The carrier is also working with two other Star members, South African and Brussels Airlines, to integrate their intra-African services and maximise their traffic possibilities.  It remains to be seen whether or not the ‘Hub for Africa’ goal will be achieved, but it is clear that careful planning has been employed to create an optimal environment for such an outcome.
The airport has been in its present location since 1963 and is currently owned by the Cairo Airport Company, a subsidiary of one of the Ministry’s holding companies.  The day-to-day operation and planning functions are done by Fraport AG under a 12-year agreement signed in 2004.  CAI’s Chairman and CEO, Hassan Mahmoud Rashed, is heavily involved in the promotion of the airport and its quest to become a continental hub.  When asked if he would use competitively priced fees and charges as a lure for new or additional services, he replied, “Why not?”
With the recent addition of T3, and upon completion of the pending refurbishment of T2, the airport’s capacity will be 27 million passengers per year, tripling the 9 million that could be accommodated by the old configuration.  Estimates for 2009 indicate that about 15 million passengers were handled, so once the refurbishment is completed there will be more than enough capacity for the planned growth.
Passengers leaving T3 are greeted by a most intriguing work of art!

In 2009, the airport recorded roughly a 1.5% passenger growth.  This is far below its recent pace but, unlike many other facilities, it has at least remained positive despite an extraordinarily difficult operating environment.
Also included in the planning are upgrades to the car parks as well as people movers and/or trams between the terminals.
 
Teething problems
Airport management believes that the expansion has gone well, but with a few teething problems, particularly in the area of IT integration.  And, as I can personally attest, the ground transport system on arrival remains chaotic at the very least.  While theoretically there are contracted operators, the reality is that arriving passengers are fair game for a vast army of ‘drivers’ that swarm throughout the terminal.  It is a problem that is recognised, but has no immediate solution and provides a negative first impression, especially for individual travellers.
The design of T3 incorporated self-service check-in kiosk installations but thus far they have been little used, with passengers preferring to patronise more traditional check-in channels.  EgyptAir is currently evaluating paperless check-in, for instance via cell phone.
 
Beyond the terminal
Airside, there is a similar expansion underway.  The airport has had two parallel runways with a third crosswind strip.  Now a third parallel runway is in the final stages of construction and the crosswind has been closed, to be utilised henceforth as a taxiway.  While this work is underway CAI is restricted to a single runway.  The new tarmac will become operational in October 2010; all will be CAT II.
Ramp services are available either from EgyptAir or Egyptian Air Services.  All the Star carriers use the EgyptAir provider.  Similarly, subsidiaries of the EgyptAir holding company provide cargo, maintenance and catering facilities as well as the core airline.  All of these offshoots are under the broad umbrella of the Ministry of Aviation.
While there is a cargo facility, the airport’s primary strength comes from its passenger operations and that emphasis is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.  The current mix of leisure and business traffic is a healthy 50/50.
 
Opportunities and threats
So, what are the challenges that lie ahead?  On the plus side, Ethiopian Airlines is looking towards joining Star which would further enhance the alliance’s dominance on the continent and likely further Cairo’s goal to be a centre of African connectivity.  And as noted, the airport has adopted an ‘if we build it, they will come’ stance that can accommodate significant growth with its current (and refurbished) infrastructure.  Airside, with the opening of the third runway, similar reserve capacity exists.
T3’s premium check-in area is spacious and uncluttered.

EgyptAir has created EgyptAir Express for domestic flights with a dedicated fleet of Embraer ERJs that allows for more frequent services, and with aircraft better sized for the mission.  Greece’s Aegean will join Star in 2010, which will expand alliance links in the Mediterranean region.
But, the reality of nearby Etihad and Emirates Airline, with Dubai but 1,500 miles (2,414km) to the east, could threaten SAI’s aspirations.  Already Emirates connects more destinations in Africa than does EgyptAir, and it feeds those services from a vastly larger intercontinental network.  To South Africa, for example, Emirates has five daily non-stops, three to Johannesburg and one each to Cape Town and Durban, with the flight to Durban being that city’s only intercontinental flight.  Star member South African Airlines is a codeshare partner on all Emirates flights, far eclipsing the single joint service (by EgyptAir) between CAI and Johannesburg.
However, unlike EgyptAir and its Star carriers, none of the Gulf airlines aspire to an internal African network that is then linked to long-haul services.  Perhaps, as the airport expects, the challenge from the Gulf will be less dramatic than many predict.  Surely, Egypt’s national airline is far more able to meet that challenge by being part of an alliance, as opposed to dealing with the threat on its own.
In an uncertain marketplace one thing is true; Cairo Airport and its home carrier EgyptAir have created a vision and have established the means by which it can be achieved.