It’s been an interesting year for Bahrain International Airport (BIA), to say the least. Operated by Bahrain Airport Company (BAC) since 2010, Gulf Air’s main base has shifted its development plans following the national carrier’s restructuring over the past 12 months.
Mohamed Yousif Al-Binfalah, who replaced Gordon Dewar as the CEO of BAC in September 2012, tells Airport World that the airport is in desperate need of more capacity.
“The existing infrastructure dates back to 1994,” he says. “That was when the terminal building was constructed, designed for four million passengers.”
Now, the airport’s traffic is more than twice that, seeing 8.47 million passengers in 2012 after reaching close to nine million in 2010 – stretching the terminal beyond its limits.
As a result, BAC and its holding company, Bahrain Mumtalakat, have devised a three-step plan to improve the situation.
In the short-term, around $18 million will be invested to renovate and replace dated infrastructure assets.
Al-Binfalah explains: “We’ve started a number of tendering projects and we are about to place some of the orders.”
These projects, expected to be completed in 2015, include installing seven new air bridges; replacing flooring in arrivals; and implementing security-related infrastructure, including detection and CCTV equipment.
The next phase aims to invest $1 billion in expanding the terminal building – an additional 40,000sqm could be added – and its related amenities over the next five years.
While plans appear to lack details at the moment, Al-Binfalah says the development will include capacity for an additional 13.5 million passengers per year, extra car parking, state-of-the-art airport systems and modern baggage handling systems.
“The need to invest in the existing infrastructure is not a luxury. It’s not a vanity. It’s a need that has to be fulfilled,” he asserts.
Finally, he states the Bahraini government has decided to build a brand new airport and is deciding between two locations. The existing capacity constraints require the ambitious plans to come to fruition by 2030.
Al-Binfalah suggests BIA will suffer if the situation continues for much longer. “Bahrain is known for its efficiency and friendliness and we’ve been internationally recognised for this,” he notes.
“We are currently handling over eight million passengers per annum, so there is a lot of pressure on all touch points at the airport. As a result, some of the passenger experience elements are not what we would like to have.”
Filling the gap
Currently, BAC has direct flights to more than 35 destinations, with some operating as far as Washington DC, London and Hong Kong.
In 2012, the airport welcomed new flights from Felix Airways, Safi Airways and Mihin Lanka Airways, as well as the introduction of the Boeing 747-8F on British Airways’ and Cargolux’s freight services.
Additionally, several routes have seen increased frequencies, such as Jet Airways’ Bahrain-Kochi operations, which commenced third weekly flights in October 2012.
The most significant developments this year have come from Bahrain’s national carrier, Gulf Air.
After announcing a major restructuring last December, the airline has seen alterations throughout its network, fleet and workforce.
Following the resumption of flights to Iraq in September 2012, Gulf Air has increased services to several destinations in the past year, including Sana’a, Chennai, Jeddah and – most recently – Pakistan.
The restructuring further saw the cancellation of several “financially unviable” routes from Bahrain, including Colombo, Dhaka and Kathmandu.
Al-Binfalah comments: “We are expecting to add at least three new destinations next year. We would like to focus on Asia and the Far East, moving forward.
“We are picking up on a new strategy to try and attract airlines to serve the discontinued destinations.”
He continues: “We are also talking to airlines in China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and India and maintain a constant dialogue with home carrier, Gulf Air, about developing their network. In terms of Gulf Air, we are particularly interested in exploring how they can serve new destinations in Asia.”
When asked if BAC sought destinations to the west, Al-Binfalah replies: “It’s very difficult to attract services when the three major carriers – Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways – are quite aggressive in serving them.
“Nevertheless, we have connectivity to the US through United; to Europe through British Airways, KLM and Lufthansa; and we are still in dialogue with other carriers to explore how we can attract them to Bahrain.”
There is no denying that Al-Binfalah and his team have high hopes for BAC and the future of BIA, despite the fact that the airport’s long-term future lies on a new site elsewhere.
Indeed, BAC’s determination to ensure that service standards at the existing gateway don’t suffer in the meantime has resulted in a big push to raise customer satisfaction levels at the airport.
And the initiative appears to be paying off, as Bahrain has been named among the top five airports in the Middle East for the last two years in ACI’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer satisfaction survey.
Furthermore, its employees were voted as the Best Airport Staff in the Middle East in the 2013 SKYTRAX World Airport Awards earlier this year.
According to Al-Binfalah, the SKYTRAX award recognises BIA as a world-class airport providing efficient, secure, safe and comfortable travel experiences within friendly surroundings.
He insists that both honours are a testament to the professionalism of BAC’s staff and its partners in providing “excellence in passenger services” in line with the company’s mission to offer passengers an exceptional travel experience.
“We are located in a part of the world which is known for its warmth and hospitality and therefore take customer service very seriously,” enthuses Al-Binfalah.
“We may not be the biggest or best-known airport in the world but this doesn’t stop us from aiming to lead the way in terms of customer service.”
Sounds like an ambition that is bound to win favour with the ever-increasing number of passengers that are set to pass through Bahrain International Airport in the next few years.