Look out Dubai and all the other glittering Gulf airports. Jordan's Queen Alia International Airport is making a bid to become the Middle East's next regional hub.
Right now a smallish and tatty facility, the first phase of a new $800 million state-of-the-art terminal is due to be completed next year, doubling the airport's annual capacity to 7 million passengers. In the years following, the aim is to increase capacity 6 percent annually to bring capacity up to 12 million passengers a year by 2033.
The airport's operators are aiming for glamor as well as numbers. Designed by the firm of world renowned British architect Norman Foster, the new terminal will be topped by distinctive sculpted domed roofs that echo the shape of Jordan's traditional Bedouin tents. Pools of water in the terminal's courtyards are designed to reflect daylight into the building and provide passive air-cooling.
"The new iconic terminal will play a key role in Jordan's plans to emerge in the near-future as a major regional travel hub," Airports Group International (AIG), a private firm that took over responsibility for expanding and operating Queen Alia four years ago, said in a statement marking the latest progress in construction.
Jordan's hub-airport ambitions come at a time of breakneck airport development in the Gulf as well as doubt about the short-to-medium term prospects for global aviation amid a sputtering global economy. Governments in the Middle East are expected to spend nearly $90 billion in aviation infrastructure development, including Dh86 billion in the Gulf over the next decades.
Saudi Arabia intends to invest approximately $7 billion in its new airport project. In Oman, the Muscat airport is being developed at a cost of $330 million to handle 48 million passengers annually, while Qatar, which is gearing up to host the 2022 World Cup in football, aims to boost its aviation infrastructure at a cost of $1 billion.
Dubai Airports, which pioneered the strategy of turning the Gulf into a transit hub for long-haul flights between Europe and Asia, unveiled a plan recently to spend nearly $8 billion through 2020 to increase the airport's capacity to over 90 million passengers annually.
"With Qatar and Dubai expanding, we have overcapacity," Christian Lambertus, managing partner of Germany-based Aviationexperts, told The Media Line. "The question in all this overcapacity is there a niche someone could benefit from. Is it Jordan? I can't tell … You need traffic through the hub to justify the investment."
A spokesman for AIG wasn't immediately available for comment.
Positioned half way between Europe and the burgeoning economies of Asia, Dubai and other Gulf countries have built massive airports that can funnel passengers quickly and efficiently.
"The Gulf airports are now taking over the hub transfer business, which until recently was centered on London, Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam," Philip Butterworth-Hayes, lead consultant at PMi Media, a British firm that tracks the aviation and defense industries, told The Media Line.
Even though the spruced up Queen Alia Airport will be competing with Gulf airports for traffic, the state-owned Abu Dhabi Investment Company is the biggest shareholder in AIG.
Lambertus, who said he hadn't studied Jordan's airport-expansion plans, said there is no reason why its location closer to Europe would detract from its efforts at developing a hub. The key challenge is to ensure quick turnaround times between flights and, failing that, attractive shopping and other facilities for traveling to while away the time.
"Istanbul is not far away and Turkish Airlines has a very good job there, using it as their hub and taking traffic from Europe to the Gulf and for long haul to Asia. Amman is a little further south and little further east but it might benefit from its location as well."
Queen Alia currently rates a 5.8 out of 10 on a user scale operated by the aviation research organization Skytrax. But Dubai International Airport scores a 4.7 and Abu Dhabi International Airport a 5.6 while Doha International Airport rates a 7.6. Singapore Changi Airport, widely regarded as one of the best-run airports in the world, scored an 8.2.
Jordanian tourism has taken a hit from the turmoil of the Arab Spring, even though the kingdom has largely avoided the mass protests and violence that have paralyzed the economies of countries like Syria and Egypt. The kingdom still has big plans to increase the number of visitors and the government's goal is to double its 2010 tourism revenues of $2.4 billion by 2015. To become a hub, however, you need to have a major international carrier based in your airport. The big bulk airlines are unlikely to help Jordan.
AIG said last week that transit passengers using the airport as a hub for travel within the MENA region represented a third of Queen Alia Airport's total traffic during the third quarter, totaling over 1 million passengers. Passengers traveling outside the region stood at 641,000 passengers.
To increase that, the country's national carrier, Royal Jordanian, will have to make a bid to expand its routes. The carrier now has a fleet of 32 mainly Airbus jets, but it has an order for 11 new Boeing 787 Dreamliners, to be delivered in the beginning of 2014. By comparison, Dubai's Emirates airlines placed an order for 50 Boeing 777s at a cost of $18 billion two weeks ago. Including options to buy 20 more of the twin-aisle jets and other agreements, the order could grow to $26 billion.
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