‘The region is an area of great importance to us,’ says Pierre Bourgin, business manager of airport consultant Aeroports de Paris (AdP). ‘Four decades have passed since we first began work in the Middle East, and the opportunities continue to increase.’

As the local and international travel markets evolve, increasingly diverse solutions are needed. It is no longer a case of one size fits all, and companies such as AdP and rail consultant Systra are having to expand their product portfolio to meet the needs of the region’s travellers.

‘The type of journey that people are undertaking is an all-important factor in designing airports,’ says Bourgin. ‘In a country such as Algeria, the airport essentially caters for passengers who are either arriving or departing. In some countries of the Gulf, it is a totally different story. There, the focus is on transit passengers, with as many as 75 per cent of passengers arriving at Dubai passing through to interconnecting flights.’

Disparities

Regional disparities are also key to the work that Systra is undertaking. ‘The infrastructure needs of North African cities are very different to those in the Gulf,’ explains Jean-Paul Balensi, Middle East & Africa vice-president. ‘In ancient cities such as Cairo, the road network has not evolved in line with the growing population. Traffic is becoming ever heavier and there is insufficient room to expand the highways. The only way to relieve the pressure is to introduce urban transit systems such as metros or trams.’

This is precisely what Systra has been assisting the Egyptian government with since it started work on line 1 of the Cairo metro back in 1970. The city’s metro is something of a showcase for the French consultant. Not only was Systra in charge of studies for line 2, and the preliminary and basic designs for line 3, but the company has also drawn up a masterplan recommending the expansion of the system up to six lines. ‘Egypt has been a good market for us,’ says Balensi. ‘In addition to the Cairo metro, we have also worked on the Alexandria metro and undertaken studies of the country’s railway network. As a result we’ve developed very strong working relationships with local authorities such as the Cairo Metro Organisation and the National Tunnels Authority.’

The experience gained in the region’s most densely populated city will undoubtedly serve Systra well in contracts it has recently won elsewhere in North Africa. ‘There has been a strong element of French co-operation from the very beginning of the Algiers metro system,’ says Balensi, whose department began work on the construction supervision contract for the first line in September. ‘The Paris Mass Transit Company [RATP – one of Systra’s shareholders]carried out the studies for the network back in the early 1980s, before the project was put on hold. Now that the metro has been revived, it is fitting that we are a part of it. The full scope of the network has yet to be determined, but this could be another important project for Systra.’

Fast-tracked

Systra is not the only transport consultant to benefit from the Algerian government’s resolve to press ahead with long-delayed transport projects. AdP is working on a contract to update and develop designs, drawn up over 10 years ago, for the partially-complete terminal buildings at Houari Boumedienne airport. ‘The project is going exceedingly well,’ says Bourgin. ‘The government has fast-tracked the work and we expect the works contract to be awarded in the coming months.’

One of the main factors behind the delays to the Algiers airport upgrade was the government’s initial proposal to tender the project on a build-operate-transfer (BOT) basis. ‘Introducing private finance into airport construction can be difficult,’ says Bourgin. ‘It tends to be most effective when it involves the construction of a new terminal at an existing airport. In other cases, researching possible streams of financing can be a lengthy process which slows the development down.’ Financing is frequently an obstacle to airport developments. Construction of Tunisia’s Enfidha airport, for which AdP was awarded the $10 million design contract in 2000, has yet to be given the go-ahead for this reason.

‘In the Gulf, however, this is rarely a problem,’ says Bourgin. ‘Governments there have sufficient financial capacity to commission and implement new airport projects without any need to seek private funds. Moreover, the rapid expansion of the region’s carriers holds out the promise of substantial future revenue flows.’

The major airport expansions of the Gulf require consultants such as AdP to exercise the full range of their technical abilities. ‘The type of travel undertaken in the Gulf is very demanding in terms of the finish and the services that the airport designer has to provide the client,’ says Bourgin. ‘In addition to first-class and business travellers who travel to and from the region’s airports, there are often a large number of workers flying on East Asian routes who take with them a huge amount of luggage. These factors have implications on baggage-handling capacity and a wide range of other issues.’

AdP’s Gulf airport experience is growing. It has designed the second terminal at Abu Dhabi International Airport and is project manager and overall design and lead consultant for the massive $4,000 million expansion programme at Dubai International Airport. The project takes in everything from building a new passenger terminal and a huge cargo terminal to a major engineering workshop. ‘Even by Gulf standards, this is a major project,’ says Bourgin. ‘But the need is most definitely there. The Gulf will be a growth market for many years to come.’

Massive expansion

Increasing capacity is not only an issue for air travel to Dubai. On the ground, the authorities are also preparing for a massive expansion in transport needs. In a first for the Gulf, Dubai Municipality has proposed the construction of a light rail transport (LRT) system, selecting Systra to carry out the preliminary engineering study for the scheme. ‘The decision to build an urban transport system is a very forward-thinking move by the local authorities,’ says Balensi. ‘Dubai, in common with other cities in the Gulf, is a modern city, built with the car in mind. The roads are wide and at present there is plenty of room to expand the highway network. But in 10 years’ time, the population will have doubled and it will be impossible to move around the city using only buses and cars.’

Under Systra’s proposed design, the LRT will consist of two lines, both comprising elevated and underground sections, covering a total of 70 kilometres and serving 55 stations. Estimated costs for the proposed project are put at $1,300 million, while Systra puts annual operating costs of the scheme at $155 million.

‘The Dubai LRT is one of the most important projects in the region,’ says Balensi. ‘It’s a vision for the future that other Gulf countries will later have to emulate. As the regional economies grow there will be an increasing requirement for workers in the service industries. These people are not going to live in the centre of cities, nor will they have the financial resources to own cars. If they are to get to work, then governments will have to contemplate mass transit systems. It’s the way forward.’