Airport upgrades risk overcapacity

15 February 2009
Gulf airports may be celebrated for their lack of check-in queues as much as for their architecture.

The opening of King Abdulaziz International airport in Jeddah in 1981 was a major event in Saudi Arabia. Its Hajj terminal, designed to look like a sea of Bedouin tents, was an iconic building that symbolised the port city’s growing wealth, and the willingness of the authorities to invest in modern infrastructure.

The airport was designed to handle 8.7 million passengers a year, many of them Hajj pilgrims. But the chronic overcrowding at the airport today is testament both to the huge increase in pilgrims, and of a failure to cope with the speed of growth in demand for air travel in general.

In 1998, 28 million passengers passed through Saudi Arabia’s airports. By 2007, this had risen to 40 million, and growth is expected to continue at about 8 per cent a year.

For Jeddah, the need to expand King Abdulaziz International has been recognised by the government, which has plans for a $20bn overhaul that will transform it into the region’s second-largest airport by 2035.

Jeddah airport’s expansion is being mirrored across the Middle East, not least at Dubai’s Al-Maktoum International, Dubai International and Abu Dhabi’s new Midfield terminal. Once these are complete, the two emirates alone will be able to handle 120 million passengers a year, up from the current 40 million.

This is the subject of envy among ageing global hubs, such as London’s Heathrow, where any expansion takes far longer because of bureaucracy and local opposition.

But it also comes at a time when traffic is falling in most regions of the world. If the Middle East sees passenger numbers drop at the same rate as they have in the US or Europe, the Gulf’s airports may come to be celebrated for their lack of check-in queues as much as for their architecture.

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