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All roads lead to Marrakech


Habiba Laklalech, director general of Moroccan Airports Authority (ONDA), tells Joe Bates more about her first 18 months in the job and the challenges and opportunities ahead for Marrakech Menara Airport.

As has been the case for almost everyone in the aviation industry, the last 18 months have proven eventful and challenging for Moroccan Airports Authority’s director general, Habiba Laklalech.

Laklalech was appointed in February, 2021, and is responsible for the overall operation and development of the country’s 26 state-owned airports, including 19 international airports, which between them can handle up to 40 million passengers per annum.

ONDA’s Moroccan airport system includes Agadir’s Al Massira Airport, Casablanca’s Mohammed V International Airport, Tangier Ibn Battuta, Rabat-Salé Airport and, of course, Marrakech Menara Airport, which on the behalf of all Morrocan airports, is the host for the upcoming ACI Africa/ACI World Annual General Assembly, Conference and Exhibition.

It is a big responsibility, but there is no doubting that she has the experience and qualities to do the job as she was formerly deputy CEO of national flag carrier, Royal Air Maroc, and working life has also included stints with Proctor & Gamble and Moroccan telecommunications firm, Meditel.

So, how have your first 18 months at ONDA gone, and has anything surprised you about Morocco’s airports and the airport industry in general?

I have enjoyed it! Having been at Royal Air Maroc at the start of the pandemic, I was certainly aware of the challenges the aviation industry faced when I arrived. What I didn’t know when I joined, but do know, is that ONDA is a strong and remarkably resilient company, compared to others in the sector, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of its staff.

Can you tell us a little more about ONDA?

In addition to operating and developing Morocco’s airport infrastructure, ONDA is responsible for the management of air navigation services in Morocco. In terms of growth, ONDA has supported the strong increase in traffic experienced by Morocco’s airport since the signing of the Open Sky agreement with the EU in 2006, by investing massively in infrastructure, equipment, quality of services and human capital.

The newest terminal at Marrakech Menara Airport, for example, was commissioned in December 2016. Elsewhere, Mohammed V Airport opened its totally renovated Terminal 1 in January 2019 and new terminals were commissionned at Guelmim, Errachidia and Zagora airports the same year. The most recent terminal opened in Morocco was at Nador El Aroui International Airport, in July 2021.

The last few years have not been easy, of course, and we are currently working on improvements to some areas of the business that we could do better. However, I am proud to say that we were able to keep Marrakech Menara and all of the country’s major airports open throughout the COVID crisis and, while appreciating that the pandemic is far from over, we are now looking to the future and to enhancing the operational performance of our entire airport network.

Indeed, I believe that our ‘Flight 2025’ strategic plan, launched in July 2021, will support our transformation into a more globally recognised, customer-centric operator, which offers the best standards in terms of air navigation services and the operation and development of airports, while adapting to national and local challenges, in each of our locations.

What role does Marrakech Menara Airport play in the country’s airport system?

Marrakech is Morocco’s most popular tourist city and its airport is the second largest in the Kingdom in terms of passenger traffic. In 2019, the airport accounted for more than 25% (six million) of all passengers handled across the country. It has a modern design, which stands out for its authentic architectural character and the various commodities it offers to its visitors.

In terms of what it offers passengers, it has many assets, which on several occasions have led to it ranking as one of the best airports in the world. For example, in 2022, it was named as one of the most beautiful airports in the world by the Spanish magazine GQ España. In 2021, it was chosen among the 10 best airports in the world by the American magazine Conde Nast Traveler, which I believe is a world reference magazine for leisure and travel.

Due to the tourist attraction of the ‘ochre city’, the vast majority of flights operated at Marrakech Menara Airport are tourism related and mostly from Europe, which accounts for 97% of the airport’s international air traffic.

Where is Marrakech Menara Airport today in terms of its recovery from COVID?

The airport welcomed around three million passengers in the first eight months of 2022, which represents about 65% of the total we handled in the same period in 2019.

This summer season saw the introduction of several new routes and services as well as increased frequencies on some existing routes. As a result, today, Marrakech Menara Airport is served by 30 airlines and is connected to more than 60 international destinations, which is at about 72% of pre-pandemic levels.

The bulk of the routes are to Europe, but Marrkech Menara also has services to the Middle East.

How many passengers do you expect to handle in Marrakech and across ONDA’s Moroccan airport system in 2022?

It isn’t easy to predict the future these days, but we are forecasting that traffic levels across our airport system will significantly rise this year. Indeed, we anticipate recovering around 76% of our passengers and 78% for aircraft movements compared to pre-pandemic levels. This will amount to around 19 million passengers across ONDA’s airports.

Specifically talking about the forecast for Marrakech Menara Airport, we expect it to handle around four million passengers in 2022, which will be around 63% of the total recorded in 2019.

The airports experiencing the highest recovery rate in terms of passenger traffic during the first eight months of 2022 are Tangier Ibn Batouta Airport (100% compared to the same period in 2021), Nador El Aroui Airport (108%), Oujda Angad Airport (115%) and Tetouan Airport (364%).

Airports in the north of the country have fared particularly well as they have traditionally benefited from Moroccan and African diaspora, and prolonged separations caused by the COVID crisis has only served to dramatically increase demand for this kind of traffic.

When do you expect passenger numbers to return to 2019 levels?

Prior to the pandemic, we were expriencing strong passenger traffic growth in almost all regions, in particular Marrakech, Fez, Tangier, Rabat, Nador, Oujda and Dakhla. As a result, the number of passengers in Morocco increased by an average of 9% per year over 2015-2019 period.

The upturn in traffic to Morocco was primarily driven by the remarkable progress made in the tourism and transport industries and economic growth. In aviation, the main axes of the strategy adopted by Morocco have been based on the liberalisation of air transport, the integration of the European aeronautical space, and raising airport capacity to meet current and future demand.

Preliminary forecasts suggest that passenger traffic at Marrakech Menara Airport could return to 2019’s level between 2024 and 2025, but as I am sure you appreciate, this is only a prediction, so the recovery could be faster or take a little longer.

Who are the biggest airlines at Marrakech Menara Airport and what are the most popular routes?

Five airlines account for more than 80% of passengers – Ryanair, Easyjet, Transavia France, Royal Air Maroc and Air France. The most popular route in terms of passengers recorded during the first eight months of 2022 was Marrakech-Paris, which is responsible for 20% of all international air traffic at airport. The next most popular international services to and from Marrakech are London, Madrid, Barcelona and Marseilles.

Why isn’t Marrakech a focus city of Moroccan national flag carrier, Royal Air Maroc?

This might seem a strange one to those that don’t know the Moroccan market, but the strategy of Royal Air Maroc has traditionally been to strengthen and concentrate its activity at its hub at Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport. The airline has a strong presence in West Africa and is active in western Europe. It also has routes to North America (the United States and Canada) and the Middle East (Dubai, Doha, etc) and Casablanca serves it well for these flights. Casablanca also serves as Royal Air Maroc’s domestic hub and transfer centre, so it is responsible for feeding a lot of traffic to Marrakech Menara. Royal Air Maroc is currently the fourth biggest airline at Marrakech Menara Airport.

How has ONDA responded to the trend for new touchless technology, specifically at Marrakech Menara Airport, but also at the country’s other gateways?

The health crisis has shown that the need to accelerate the digital transformation of the world’s airports is no longer a choice but an imperative. With this in mind, we have undertaken an ambitious programme for Morocco’s airports based around two main areas of focus.

The first concerns the digitisation of the passenger journey and baggage management, based on the latest technologies, such as contactless biometric technology, unique identifiers, facial recognition, etc. These systems, which are in various stages of testing and adoption around the world, validate a passenger’s identity and credentials for paperless check-in, baggage drop-off, security, immigration and boarding.

The second focus area is on the automation of airport resources management – aided by the adoption of collaborative solutions for the exchange of information between the various airport partners. Success here would mean that airport decisions are based on a complete and reliable source of shared and usable information, in real time, for all stakeholders in the airport chain.

The use of big data, the Internet of Things (loT), cloud technologies and machine learning will transform the way infrastructure are operated and maintained. This is what we are planning in the airport extension projects across Morocco and Marrakech Menara Airport is no exception.

Such technological advances will raise the capacity and operational efficiency of existing facilities and bring high added value for passengers at the same time as reducing the need to invest in costly new infrastructure.

Are there any customer services initiatives or facilities at Marrakech Menara Airport that you are particularly proud of for going the extra mile?

Firstly, it is important to emphasise that we are a service company, and the satisfaction of our passengers is our daily objective. Marrakech Menara Airport has a global Airport Service Quality (ASQ) score of 4.06, according to ACI passengers satisfaction standards, and as already mentioned, is ranked as one of the most beautiful airports in the world by some famous international magazines.

When it comes to Marrakech Menara Airport, I would say that the distinct design of the airport terminals and a host of unique facilities ensure that it can be considered as a destination in its own.

Perhaps the first thing that passengers will notice is the double-skin facades of the terminals, which help regulate the interior temperatures and prevent overheating in summer.

Indeed, Marrakech Menara Airport has a modern and singular architecture that reflects the Moroccan heritage. Its design and decoration represent a subtle blend between the modern creative touch and the traditional imprint.

The airport is characterised by its large glass dome, one of the largest in Africa. It also has an esplanade planted with arborescent lights and embellished with artistic fountains in a metal structure, combining modernity, large spaces and aesthetics, which makes it possible to generate a feeling of comfort and wellbeing and a positive experience for our passengers.

Facilities wise, Marrakech Menara Airport has a ‘walkthrough’ shopping gallery of duty-free shops that offer a diverse choice of national and international brands.

The airport also has a wide range of restaurants inspired by Moroccan gastronomy that are suitable for all tastes.

In addition, Marrakech Menara Airport, due to its proximity to the city centre, benefits from excellent intermodal connectivity (bus and train stations, highway network), which hopefully only goes to improve the airport experience for visitors.

This airport is a little showcase of ONDA’s know-how in terms of hospitality, service and the offer of shops, restaurants and entertainment.

Are there any plans to develop the airport’s key aviation infrastructure?

ONDA’s new transformation plan, ‘Flight 2025’ covers the period from 2021 to 2025 and includes several ongoing projects at Marrakech Menara Airport that are designed to achieve some quick wins that will strengthen its capacity, improve the quality of services offered to our passengers and accelerate its digital transition.

These quick wins consist of reconfiguring some spaces (check-in counters and departure screening checkpoints) in order to increase their capacity, and improving the international and domestic boarding lounges.

In the medium-term (by year 2028), the old Terminal 1 will be replaced by a new terminal with a much bigger capacity, that will allow Marrakech Menara Airport to handle around 12 million passengers per annum by 2040. This is almost double the gateway’s existing capacity.

The development plan in the medium-term also includes increasing the capacity of the existing runway, and the construction of a new control tower.

What do you hope ONDA will gain from hosting the upcoming ACI Africa/ACI World Annual General Assembly in Marrakech?

This meeting of airports is always a highlight of the year as it is a major aviation event that is very rich in exchanges.

It will allow us to showcase Marrakech and Marrakech Menara Airport to the world, catch up with old friends and make new ones in one of the best cities in the world, and give airports the opportunity to share and learn from each other.

We have a lot to talk about, particularly with regards to our experiences of more than two years of health crisis, its repercussions on the airport ecosystem, and the progress made in terms of the digitalisation of the airport journey for passengers and baggage.

The ACI Africa/ACI World Annual General Assembly will also be an opportunity for the community of world airports to mobilise its forces to handle climate change issues. Formerly relegated to the rank of ambitions, the challenges of sustainable development, social responsibility and the environment are now a global priority.

Global aviation has set a very bold commitment to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is a big challenge, but the sector is determined to reduce its ecological footprint, and to succeed, we need to begin to make a difference today.

What is the appeal of airports and the aviation industry to you?

I discovered the air transport sector with Royal Air Maroc and spent 15 years with them before joining ONDA a year and a half ago. In my opinion, aviation is by far the most exciting and fascinating sector due to the diversity of the issues it deals with on a daily basis. And, as we have all experienced with COVID, it is also a sector which is very vulnerable to external hazards. The slightest problem in a given country or at a given airport has repercussions on all the airports connected to it and on all the airlines that serve it. Life is never boring.

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