Bahrain International Airport: Ready to grow
Bahrain International Airport’s new terminal gives it the potential to grow and become a firm favourite with passengers over the coming decades, writes Joe Bates.
Bahrain International Airport’s new state-of-the-art terminal is the crowning jewel of a $1.1 billion infrastructure development programme designed to transform it into a world-class boutique airport and a key driver of national economic growth.
When it opened earlier this year, His Excellency, the Minister of Transportation and Telecommunications and chairman of Bahrain Airport Company (BAC), Kamal bin Ahmed Mohamed, stated that its impressive new facilities and services would help sustain the growth of Bahrain’s aviation sector for decades to come.
“This, in turn, will help drive investment into the Kingdom and stimulate national economic growth in line with Bahrain’s Vision 2030,” he noted.
These sentiments are certainly shared by BAC CEO, Mohamed Al-Binfalah, who believes that the new terminal – the key project of the gateway’s Airport Modernization Program (AMP) – will allow the airport to take a giant step forward in terms of operational efficiency and customer service, helping reinforce Bahrain’s position as a regional aviation hub.
“The first thing that I want to say is that our beautiful new terminal was built in a relatively short space of time and, most importantly, within a well-managed budget,” he enthuses.
“I am also happy to report that the opening went almost unnoticed, which meant that it happened without incident, and this pays testament to the success of our ORAT [Operational Readiness Activation and Transition] programme. As we all know, this hasn’t necessarily been the case with terminal openings elsewhere.
“This was no vanity project – we really needed a new terminal. The old one served us well, but it was last upgraded in 1994, when its stated design capacity was four million passengers per annum. We handled around 9.6 million in 2019, so we simply didn’t have the capacity or the facilities to provide the levels of quality and service we wanted to offer passengers and our airline customers.
“That has all changed now as the new terminal has provided us with quality infrastructure that will serve our needs for years to come. Its addition is in line with the Kingdom’s vision to improve our key infrastructure and it finally gives us the opportunity to excel and showcase the very best of Bahrain.”
Al-Binfalah describes the new terminal as a “right-sized” building that, from day one, was designed with the passenger journey in mind.
He says: “Many airport buildings are large, confusing and even a little overwhelming with few features to distinguish one from another. We think our terminal is different. We went for quality rather than size, so it is very easy to navigate, hassle-free and to a large extent, very relaxing to use.
“Elements of our rich local heritage are found throughout the building, which makes fantastic use of natural light. It also has outdoor open air terraces and technology that offers passengers a very personal experience and journey.”
Passengers will also notice a big difference in the number and variety of retail/F&B offerings in the new terminal. They include Bahrain’s first Jamie’s Deli and Pizzeria from celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, which is one of 21 F&B outlets operated at the gateway by food concessionaire SSP.
Spread across 210,000sqm, the new facility is four times larger than the airport’s old terminal and will increase the capacity of Bahrain International Airport (BIA) to 14 million passengers per annum.
Its facilities include a 6,600sqm Arrivals Hall and a 4,780sqm Departures Hall; 104 check-in desks; 36 passport control offices; 22 e-gates designed to ensure the rapid processing of passengers; eight baggage reclaim belts; and 10,002sqm of retail space which incorporates a duty free area that is three times larger than in the old terminal.
The terminal also has its own hotel and spa for transit passengers and an airport clinic where a dedicated team of healthcare professionals are on hand around-the-clock to provide medical services to visitors.
The AMP broke ground in 2016, and although it has taken a little longer than expected to come to fruition, not helped by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was always the plan that it would boast some of the most advanced technology on the planet.
As a result, the new passenger terminal contains a host of new technologies designed to ensure the fast and efficient handling of passengers and give travellers more control of their journeys.
These technologies include SITA’s biometrically enabled Smart Path kiosks and Flex cloud-based passenger processing solution, and 22 e-gates supplied by Vision-Box that utilise facial, iris and fingerprint recognition to confirm passengers’ identities.
The combination of new passenger friendly facilities, extra capacity and advanced technology deployed in the terminal makes Al-Binfalah confident that BIA is now equipped to expand its route network and grow as a hub.
He believes the new facilities will provide the Kingdom’s national flag carrier, Gulf Air, with the platform to build its regional route network and help persuade new foreign airlines to launch services to Bahrain when the pandemic is over.
Any new services will, of course, be good for Bahrain and maybe allow it to close the traffic gap slightly on the super hubs on its doorstep. However, Al-Binfalah is quick to note that BIA isn’t competing against them as its future development is very much focused on supporting Bahrain’s strategic position in the Gulf and the growth and success of Gulf Air’s regional and international network.
“I don’t think we have ever competed with any of the regional hubs, and we’ve certainly no intention of changing that strategy now as I truly believe that we complement each other by providing different options across the region,” says Al-Binfalah.
“Becoming a major hub was never on the drawing board for us. They do what they do, and they do it well. We are a strong regional hub and can now do this job even better.”
“Our aim for the AMP was very simple. We wanted to create a high quality, boutique airport that provides facilities and services that are on a par with anything found around the world today, and I’m confident that we’ve achieved this with the opening of the new terminal.”
Like almost every other gateways on the planet, Bahrain International Airport has experienced somewhat of a rollercoaster ride in the last two years in terms of its passenger traffic, going from an all-time high of 9.6 million in 2019 to a COVID-19 impacted low of 2.3 million (-76%) in 2020.
Al-Binfalah is hoping that the airport will fare better than 2020 this year and, in the best-case scenario, be back to 2019’s traffic levels by 2023/24.
In normal times, the Kingdom’s national flag carrier, Gulf Air, accounts for around 60% of all passengers at Bahrain International Airport courtesy of its network of non-stop flights to 46 destinations in
25 different countries.
The airline celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2020 and recently launched a new slogan, ‘A class of our own’, which it believes reflects its individuality and ambition to provide best in class products and services.
Gulf Air’s acting CEO, Captain Waleed Al Alawi, notes: “After a challenging 2020, we’ve had an exciting and ambitious first quarter of 2021, which included the unveiling of the new Bahrain International Airport passenger terminal building and our own brand new Falcon Gold lounge.
“Arabian hospitality is at the core of our business and with our boutique strategy being applied along every step of our passengers’ journeys, we will always be in a class of our own.”
Gulf Air is one of several carriers in the region to sign up to trial IATA Travel Pass, the association’s own digital passport, in a bid to hasten it and Bahrain’s recovery from the pandemic and help pave the way for the re-establishment of global connectivity while managing the risks
The airlines with the next biggest share of the market at BIA in 2019 were Emirates (6%), Flydubai (4%), Air Arabia (3%) and Etihad (2%) and therefore it is not surprising to learn that Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Jeddah, Kuwait and Riyadh are among its most popular routes.
In addition to the big regional carriers, other international airlines operating non-stop flights to Bahrain have traditionally included Air India, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, SriLankan Airlines and Egypt Air.
On the cargo side, airlines such as Cargolux, Texel Air and Emirates Sky Cargo operate freighter flights to Bahrain. BIA is also the growing regional hub of express delivery giant, DHL.
All contributed towards the airport handling 300,205 tonnes of cargo last year, and Al-Binfalah believes that there is much more to come in terms of growth, describing it as the gateway’s next frontier in terms of building the facilities needed to attract more cargo operators to Bahrain and boost freight volumes.
Economic importance of BIA to Bahrain
On the importance of BIA to the Kingdom of Bahrain, Al-Binfalah simply states: “BIA is the only international airport in Bahrain, and as we are an island nation, it is more than just a connecting point, it is our gateway to the rest of the world.
“It is a vital economic and social asset for the country and must be capable of meeting the Kingdom’s present and future needs.”
He states that the airport’s importance to Bahrain was clear for all to see in 2020 through the key role it played in enabling and facilitating the import of PPE and urgent medical supplies and helping repatriate stranded Bahrani nationals.
And BIA has, of course, continued to play a leading role in Bahrain’s fight against COVID-19 this year by accommodating flights that have brought and continue to bring potentially life-saving vaccines to the Gulf state.
Al-Binfalah believes that BIA has been on an upward trajectory since BAC took over responsibility for operating the gateway in 2010.
He says that BAC transformed the way the airport was managed and provided the impetus needed to finally move BIA forward in terms of working more closely with the government to formulate a strategic plan for its future growth and development.
In addition to the new terminal, the Airport Modernization Program has also led to the opening of a new Rescue and Firefighting Station, a 2,700 vehicle capacity multi-storey car park, a Central Utilities Building, fuel farm and Super Gate (security entrance) for staff and goods.
And he feels that BAC’s management team are well equipped to oversee the next step of BIA’s development post COVID-19, which will see the construction of a new Express Cargo complex as part of plans to enhance the airport’s cargo facilities, and a new Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) hangar.
In the meantime, BIA plans to rehabilitate all of the aircraft stands in front of the old terminal and adding some underground fuel hydrants before eventually demolishing the now effectively mothballed complex.
It may still only have one runway, but Al-Binfalah has no doubt that BIA is now more than well equipped to cope with demand for at least the next 20 years, before it is eventually replaced by a new off-shore airport.
“We have seen the capacity airports such as London Gatwick can get from a single runway, and we are nowhere near those kind of levels, so I believe that the new terminal has effectively extended the life of BIA until at least 2040 and probably beyond,” he notes.
“This is great because it gives us time to consider the next steps for the long-term growth of Bahrain’s aviation sector and passengers have the chance to come and experience our fantastic new terminal for themselves.”