Region’s airport operators are preparing for a massive expansion in capacity that will turn more Gulf airports into Heathrow-style hubs.

The Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region is witnessing substantial year-on-year increases in both passenger and cargo volumes. Regional airport providers are preparing to spend $60bn over the next five years on upgrading and expanding infrastructure to cope with increasing traffic. A large percentage of this capital is being invested in technology, an essential part of the toolkit of handling large passenger numbers.

According to Geneva-based Sita, a specialist in air transport communications and IT, $5bn of the $60bn will be devoted to technology solutions designed to increase operational efficiencies,  improve the passenger experience and bolster security at airports.

Projected traffic

Regionally, there have been sizeable year-on-year increases in passenger numbers. According to data from the Beirut-headquartered Arab Air Carriers Organisation, airport traffic in Arab countries doubled in the eight years to 2011 to 224 million.

Although political unrest resulting from the Arab Uprisings of 2011 ended the double-digit annual growth, with passenger traffic increasing just 0.3 per cent that year, numbers are expected to pick up again in 2012.

Major regional hubs have already witnessed impressive increases this year. Dubai International airport reported a 13.7 per cent rise in traffic to 27.9 million passengers during the first six months of 2012, compared with 24.5 million passengers registered during the corresponding period in 2011.

Arab airports traffic
Year Passengers Percentage change Cargo (tonnes) Percentage change
2001 101,421,365 -0.70 2,332,305 -7.30
2002 108,856,849 7.30 2,641,324 13.20
2003 113,390,101 4.20 2,932,112 11.00
2004 133,827,461 18.00 3,283,969 12.00
2005 142,631,638 6.60 3,572,738 8.80
2006 153,853,515 7.90 3,946,691 10.50
2007 177,142,539 15.10 4,414,944 11.90
2008 194,223,379 9.60 4,718,116 6.90
2009 201,578,428 3.8 4,960,662 5.10
2010 224,148,301 11.20 5,622,352 13.30
2011 224,797,880 0.30 5,697,525 1.30
Source: Arab Air Carriers Organisation

“We are on track to meet the annual projected traffic of 56.5 million passengers, which will bring us very close to Dubai International’s operational capacity of 60 million passengers per annum,” Paul Griffiths, Dubai Airports chief executive officer, told MEED in September. The addition of a third concourse, due to open late in 2013, will boost this capacity to 75 million. Dubai’s new airport, Al-Maktoum International at Dubai World Central in Jebel Ali, is projected to accommodate 160 million passengers a year and 12 million tonnes of cargo. It is scheduled to open in 2020.

Even Lebanon, despite experiencing the collateral damage of the Syria crisis, has had a spike in numbers. Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International airport saw passenger traffic rise 15 per cent to 2.2 million in the first five months of 2012.

Building bigger terminals and car parks is one aspect of catering to the rising demands of the region’s aviation sector. To ensure that bigger also means better for passengers and airports, operators are investing in technological applications to help handle more travellers.

It is not only Mena operators that are spending on systems such as e-gates, which use biometric data to process passengers more quickly at immigration. Increased outlay on check-in technologies, baggage handling and security screening is part of a global trend towards ensuring a more pleasant passenger experience.

According to Sita’s annual global survey, improving the passenger experience is the leading driver of IT spend for 59 per cent of the world’s airports.

This investment goes beyond physical equipment. Airports are turning to mobile applications (apps), social media and intelligent technologies, including geolocation services.

Geolocation technology uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies to track passenger movements through their phones and other mobile-connected devices, such as tablets, thereby enabling operators to make intelligent decisions about where to locate duty free shops, or how to allocate immigration counters more effectively. 

Investment strategies

Geolocation is a core requirement if terminal facilities are to be optimised. It will help reduce congestion and, within three years, new way-finding services are set to become commonplace on mobile devices, allowing passengers to navigate easily through airports. Just 10 per cent of airports provide them today, but this is set to jump to 70 per cent by 2015, says Sita.

Mena airport investment strategies will be geared to meeting these core demands, says Jihad Boueri, vice-president of airport solutions for Sita’s Middle East, India & Africa division. “Investment is heading into the three areas of mobile apps, social media and intelligent technologies, with the bulk focused on mobile.”

Quality is as important as cost. The Sita survey found that airports in Middle East and Africa consider managing airport capacity more important than reducing the cost of operations as a business driver for IT investment.

Easing the passenger journey will help Mena airports become more competitive as they seek to morph into revenue generators. Travellers will be encouraged to spend more time enjoying facilities and less time rushing between gates.

E-gate systems

Investment in self-service e-gate border systems offers economic benefits for operators, reducing the need for additional staff and improving workforce productivity.

Several Gulf airports have introduced e-gate systems, deploying fingerprint or iris recognition technologies to facilitate faster boarding. Saudi Arabia is set to install e-gate systems at all its airports and has started with King Khaled International airport in Riyadh and King Fahd International airport in Dammam, where passengers take a maximum of seven seconds to process. Every individual in the airport is identified by magnetic ID cards on departure and arrival.

Dubai International airport has introduced its own e-gate system, which reads passport information and captures biometric data including facial recognition in 12 to 14 seconds. It is being trialled at Terminal 3 and will be formally introduced there on 1 January 2013, before being rolled out across all terminals. Qatar will also install e-gates as part of its massive New Doha International Airport (NDIA) development due for completion in 2013.

There are two ways to use e-gate systems, says Boueri. They can be used for immigration, as they are in Dubai. Passengers’ fingerprints are used to recognise and authenticate them. The other application is at the boarding gate, where passengers enter the plane itself by self-boarding, simply scanning their boarding pass, which could be a barcode on a mobile phone or a boarding card. This minimises the need for additional staff on the gate.

Where available in the region, self-service operations, such as mobile check-in, are popular. According to a 2011 Sita survey of passengers, travellers at Abu Dhabi International airport expressed the strongest desire for self-service operations of six globally surveyed hubs. The other five were in Atlanta, Beijing Frankfurt, Mumbai and Sao Paulo.

For major new airport projects such as NDIA and Abu Dhabi’s new Midfield Terminal complex, technology is integrated at the planning stage. This presents lucrative opportunities for international technology providers.

Smiths’ Detection of the US picked up a contract worth more than $129m this year to supply all the main automatic x-ray and trace detection security scanning systems at NDIA.

Portugal’s Vision-Box, a provider of automated border control (ABC) systems, has opened an office in Qatar as part of an effort to promote its solutions in the region. Its product portfolio includes live biometric enrolment stations, document verification kiosks, digital document dispensers and personalisation systems, passing-through, portable and hand-held biometric units, and smart biometric ABC e-gates.

“We are focusing on the Gulf as an important region for us. There are several new airports and initiatives already under way in the region and we aim to be involved in these,” says Ahmad Ghiassi, a Doha-based executive at Vision-Box.

The growth of passenger flow can be handled either with new terminal investments or making airports more efficient through the implementation of smart technology.

“The optimisation of resources could be supplied with technologies such as CDM [Common Decision Making], RMS [Resource Management Systems] and AODB [Airport Operational Database],” says Binnur Guleryuz Onaran, IT general manager at TAV Airports.

“When these technologies are combined, they will serve as a robust infrastructure to provide opportunities that will increase passenger flow. TAV Airports is planning to implement new smart software such as CDM, RMS and e-gate applications to be utilised in managing passenger flow,” he adds.

Ghiassi says Vision-Box’s e-gate ABC system offers increases in speed of passenger throughput of 40-50 per cent. “With a single biometric document we are able to process passengers in around 10 seconds,” he says. “At Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, where we have an e-gate system installed, we never go above 10 seconds,” says Ghiassi. He was unwilling to say how much the company’s systems cost.

In coming years, regional airport operators are likely to focus their technology investment on so-called business intelligence systems, which enable collaborative decision-making between the various stakeholders in an airport to make the traveller’s experience smoother.

Business intelligence systems aim to improve customer service and drive operational efficiency and cost savings. For example, geolocation technology can track the location of staff, vehicles, baggage and passengers in real time.

Shared intelligence

No official announcements have been made yet about the introduction of such systems in the region. However, the advent of business intelligence as a key technology asset reflects the increasing complexity of airports, especially on the scale of those being built in the Middle East. The number of stakeholders, including airlines, airport tenants, employees and passengers, has created a need for a collaborative decision-making system involving all who are involved.

“If there’s any decision to be taken by airport stakeholders – whether to move a plane from one gate to another, or whether to change flight schedules, or to open more gates and more counters – many decisions affect all the other airport stakeholders. Collaborative decision-making systems gather information from all stakeholders and ensure decisions are in the interests of all stakeholders,” says Boueri.

With e-gates, advanced baggage drop systems or business intelligence systems, the modern Middle East airport is becoming a far more connected entity than the sometimes chaotic hubs endured in the past.

Between 2000 and today, Arab countries have spent about $300bn on aviation – about $200bn went into new aircraft and $100bn on the renovation of airports. Sita expects a much stronger focus on technology investments in coming years. “If you look at the number of new airports being developed, whether in the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman or Kuwait, there is a real boom under way,” says Boueri. 

As passengers acclimatise to the innovations, the overall passenger experience is likely to become substantially better than before. For those who once had to stand for hours in long immigration queues, that is something to look forward to.

Key fact

Improving the passenger experience is the number one driver of IT spend for 59 per cent of the world’s airports

Source: Sita