Out to impress

Hamad International Airport’s chief operating officer, Badr Mohammed Al Meer, talks to Joe Bates about traffic trends, IT innovation and expansion plans for 2022 and beyond.

The opening of Hamad International Airport (DOH) in April 2014 signalled the start of a new era for Doha and Qatar and the gateway certainly hasn’t disappointed, racking up a host of records and awards and gaining a reputation for pioneering innovative solutions in its first decade.

The records and awards range from constantly smashing its annual traffic figures and winning a host of customer service and environmental accolades to being the first airport in the world to achieve independent verification from the British Standards Institution (BSI) for its implementation of ICAO’s COVID-19 Aviation Health Safety Protocols.

While the desire to lead from the front, in particular in terms of trialling and testing new technology, has led to Hamad becoming known as a trendsetter for introducing potential new solutions to the market.

DOH, for example, successfully trialled and installed advanced technology for contactless self check-in as part of its ongoing efforts to safeguard its staff and passengers from COVID-19.

The solution harnesses the power of infra-red technology to detect fingers close to the fields on the screen and, similar to a mouse click, send instructions to the kiosk or bag drop application; eliminating the need to touch potentially infected surfaces.

Other examples of the airport leading the way with new solutions include introducing new security screening technology that means that passengers no longer have to remove liquids or larger electronic items from their bags; and using fully autonomous disinfection robotics and advanced thermal screening helmets in the fight against COVID. The latter initiative uses multiple advanced technologies such as infrared thermal imaging, artificial intelligence and AR (augmented reality).

It’s not all been plain sailing, of course, as Hamad didn’t escape the reach of the global pandemic, which led to passenger numbers falling from an all-time high of 38.8 million (+12%) in 2019 to less than half of that in 2020 due to COVID caused travel restrictions and flight suspensions.

However, DOH’s hub status primarily due to strength of home carrier Qatar Airways, which continues to expand its global network, led to a strong performance last year with passenger numbers rising by 41% to 17.7 million.

And with Qatar hosting football’s FIFA World Cup finals later this year, DOH’s chief operating officer, Engr Badr Mohammed Al Meer, is confident that his gateway’s recovery from COVID will gather momentum this year.

“Based on the surge in volumes we witnessed in 2021 compared to 2020, we are optimistic that traffic levels are on their way to return to pre-COVID levels,” says Al Meer.

“The World Cup will benefit Qatar and the entire region and showcase its wonders and capabilities to the world. It will also mean another record for us as we will make history by becoming the first airport operator to welcome all air travellers to a World Cup tournament.

“The tournament will also show the world the passion that exists for football in this region and the amazing fans and footballing talent the Middle East and Arab world boasts.

“Hamad International Airport along with the whole country is ready to create memorable experiences for football fans across the globe.”

Traffic trends

As stated above, DOH handled 17.7 million passengers (+41%) and 2.58 million tonnes of cargo (+20%) in 2021 as the airport continued its recovery from the global pandemic.

Al Meer notes that Hamad’s cargo volumes were boosted by six new cargo destinations, which helped cement the airport’s status as one of the busiest cargo gateways on the planet.

Despite the subdued global aviation market, DOH actually welcomed seven new passenger routes last year – Abidjan (ABJ), Harare (HRE), Lusaka (LUN), Moscow (SVO), Odessa (ODS), Olongapo (SFS) and Seattle (SEA) – and one new airline partner, RwandAir.

For the record, Dhaka, Male, Dubai, Kathmandu and London were among the busiest departing destinations from Doha in 2021.

The new destinations and airline means that DOH is currently served by 35 carriers that between operate flights to 160 destinations in 81 countries and territories around the world.

Not surprisingly, Qatar Airways is the biggest airline operator at DOH by some margin in terms of market share, followed by Indian carriers Indigo and Air India Express, which provide connecting services to a number of popular Indian destinations. Next come a handful of Middle Eastern carriers.

Ongoing and future expansion

Despite being one of the world’s newer gateways, DOH’s rapid growth since opening means that it is in midst of a development programme, Phase A of which will raise its capacity to over 58 million passengers per annum ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Phase B, which will commence after the end-of-year tournament, will effectively equip the airport to handle more than 60mppa.

Phase A involves linking concourses D and E and creating a central concourse. The desire to offer passengers what Al Meer describes as “unique experiences throughout the terminal, beyond regular expectations”, means that Phase A of the development will feature experience enhancing new additions such as a 10,000sqm tropical garden and new artwork and retail/ F&B facilities.

“The expansion will enhance the multi-dimensional offerings of the airport through the integration of additional world-class art, a refreshing environment of lush greenery, and contemporary retail and dining concepts among other leisure attractions and facilities under one expansive terminal,” enthuses Al Meer.

“Our aim is to inspire positive emotions and take the stress out of travel, and in line with this philosophy, we will introduce a 10,000sqm indoor tropical garden and a 268sqm water feature.

“The tropical garden will have trees sourced from sustainable forests around the world and the new design will allow trees and plants to acclimatise to the internal conditions and grow throughout the life of the airport. This will provide passengers with an opportunity to be part of a didactic experience to showcase the importance of environmental conservation.”

He notes that DOH’s expansion will also see the construction of a new cargo terminal that will increase the airport’s freight capacity to upwards of five million tonnes per year.

Also included in the modernisation programme is a second Al Mourjan lounge, the new 9,000sqm addition being equipped with its own spa, gym, restaurants and business centres.

Al Meer also promises that passengers can look forward to new retail experiences and a new-look main duty free store courtesy of its partnership with Qatar Duty Free (QDF) and leading luxury brands, as he notes, DOH strives to bring travellers “the world’s best in airport retail, leisure, and attractions”.

Phase B will extend concourses D and E to further enhance the airport’s capacity to over 60 million passengers per annum.

Sustainable growth

In response to whether the sustainable development of DOH is high on the agenda, Al Meer replies: “We don’t only strive to be the best airport in the world, but also the best airport for the world.”

And it’s not just a soundbite as he insists that DOH addresses its impact on the environment by taking steps towards minimising the consumption of natural resources, controlling its carbon emissions, and safely managing waste.

He notes that since opening, the airport has showcased its commitment to environmental sustainability by pledging to improve carbon efficiency per traffic unit to 30% by 2030.

Indeed, the airport has since observed a steady downward trend in overall CO2 emissions and has been certified at Level 3 Optimisation status in ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme.

Upon completion of Phase A of the terminal’s expansion programme, DOH is expected to become the first airport in the MENA region to achieve a 4-star Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS) rating, a performance-based system for rating green buildings and infrastructure.

The terminal will also be a LEED Silver-certified building with innovative energy efficiency measures incorporated throughout the entire premises.

Al Meer notes that the airport is working with its supply chain in all expansion projects to ensure that the equipment they use is contemporary and long lasting.

In terms of waste management, he points out that DOH’s new Oryx Airport Hotel has successfully replaced all of its plastic water bottles with eco-friendly water containers and believes that his hub operates one of the region’s most effective water management systems.

“Most water used at the airport is directed to our dedicated wastewater treatment plant, which returns the treated water for irrigating our landscape features,” says Al Meer.

“In 2018, the treatment plant was successful in recovering 93% of wastewater for re-use, nevertheless, we continually review its systems to try and identify areas of improvement that will improve our long-term efficiency and sustainability.”

Customer service

As you would expect from an airport that consistently performs well in ACI’s ASQ customer experience programme, Al Meer reports that DOH puts passengers at the heart of its strategy by implementing and prioritising a passenger-centric approach to its mission and vision.

“Whether it is everyday airport operations, our expansion project or preparing for the FIFA World Cup Finals in Qatar later this year, we always consider how the experience benefits the passenger,” he says.

“This approach means that whenever developing or launching new services or facilities, we always look at how they will enhance the airport experience. This is one of the reasons why at our airport Wi-Fi, quiet rooms, art exhibitions, activity nodes, play areas and family relaxation facilities are all complimentary to our passengers.”

He proudly notes that DOH’s customer service team “comprises a group of talented, passionate and caring individuals from around the world who are focused on providing exceptional customer service while aligning with the company’s vision”.

Ambitions for 2022 and beyond

Looking ahead, Al Meer simply states that DOH’s focus for 2022 and beyond is to “maintain its leading position globally and provide a new standard for airports around the world”.

When it comes to traffic growth, he is confident that the ongoing expansion of DOH will open doors to more airlines partners that want to launch services to and from Doha, increasing Qatar’s global connectivity and network of destinations.

Going forward, Al Meer says that DOH will focus on enhancing the passenger experience by continuing to provide passengers with a memorable travel experience through “activations, events, art, culture, retail and F&B experiences throughout the terminal”.

He reveals that the airport is working on further developing the retail sector by bringing world-renowned brands and providing exclusive products to DOH in partnership with Qatar Duty Free.

Offerings to come after the expansion of the airport, he teases, will include alfresco retail and dining experiences for passengers.

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