Hamad International Airport

Treating passengers as guests

In the run-up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Hamad International Airport is set for an ambitious third-stage development. Martin Moodie spoke to Chief Operating Officer Engr. Badr Mohammed Al Meer about the project and the consumer-focused philosophy that underpins it.

Hamad International Airport Chief Operating Officer Engr. Badr Mohammed Al Meer: “We need to be pioneers in what we are doing. We need to bring new ideas, new concepts, for other people to follow us. We don’t want to be followers.”

Less than five years since its opening, Hamad International Airport (HIA) is already entering the third phase of its development. Despite the existing airport’s ultra-modern facilities, the sustained growth of national carrier Qatar Airways has placed immense pressure on the Qatari gateway’s capacity. Close to 37 million passengers used HIA last year compared to a planned maximum throughput of just 25-27 million. With the FIFA World Cup due to take place in Qatar in 2022, expansion is vital.

Speaking to The Moodie Davitt Report from his glass-walled office handily overlooking the landside departures zone at HIA, Chief Operating Officer Engr. Badr Mohammed Al Meer is brimming with enthusiasm for the project. “You’ve seen the quality of this terminal,” he says, gesturing towards the vast departures expanse below his office. “In my opinion, the new expansion looks even better design-wise than what you see here. It’s a piece of art.”

The new terminal will be linked to the existing terminal in the north node (opened on 15 October last year) like a T-extension. “[It] will reach more than 60 million passengers,” he says. “Our expected completion is, of course, before the 2022 World Cup.”

Going global: Hamad International Airport's success has been driven by the extraordinary growth of national carrier Qatar Airways.

Listen to Hamad International Chief Operating Officer Engr. Badr Mohammed Al Meer tell Martin Moodie about the airport's purist, guest-focused philosophy on running an airport.

That extravaganza commences on 15 November 2022, with the final taking place just over a month later on Qatar National Day, 18 December. The timeline is tight but there will be no compromise on quality, Engr. Al Meer says.

Art is close to the heart of HIA senior management. Badr cites the airport’s Al Safwa First Lounge (see panel), dubbed the world’s only seven-star airport lounge, as an example of how high Hamad International aims, and he promises more to come. “It’s not a lounge, it’s a destination,” he comments. “People come to the lounge and they don't want to leave. You have everything available there, from the duty free to the spa to hotel rooms. You even have a tailor.”

Hamad International Airport thinks big both in its commitment to art and in the sheer scale of some of its installations. Al Safwa First Lounge hosts a magnificent representation of works from Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, while the 23ft Lamp Bear sculpture by Swiss artist Urs Fischer takes centre stage in the airport’s grand foyer. Like many famous works of art, the huge yellow Lamp Bear attracts polarised views. Whatever one’s opinion, however, it has become a show-stopping consumer beacon, an Instagrammable attraction that generates thousands of selfies, group photos and social-media posts each month.

On location: The Moodie Davitt Report Chairman Martin Moodie with Engr. Badr Mohammed Al Meer at Hamad International Airport.

A sculpture called Small Lie (pictured below) by American artists KAWS, introduced last year in the North node, eclipses even the giant teddy bear in size. The work, made from afrormosia wood and shaped like a giant marionette, weighs 15 tonnes and stands 32 feet tall. As with all HIA’s works, it is designed to connect people across generations with the wonder of art.

“People are used to normal airports … the transferring, the screening, the immigration and so on,” says Engr. Al Meer. “They can’t wait until they board the plane. In our airport, we try to change the concept and the consumer mindset to make it a destination. We even open our check-in up to five or six hours before the flight for people to come and enjoy the airport.

“You can see everything in our airport; we’re trying to cover the culture of the nation. In the first class lounge you will see art pieces from the Ottoman Empire, from various Islamic countries and from the north of Africa. We’re still continuing to install art pieces around the airport.” Pending final confirmation, up to seven major new art pieces will be installed in the next 18 months, says Badr, largely as the result of a close collaboration between HIA and the Qatar Museum Authority.

Small Lie, big footprint: American artist KAWS’s sculpture, reminiscent of a wooden marionette, weighs in at 15 tonnes. The oversized piece plays with an emotional tension of strength and kindness. Truly a wooden heart.

Learnings applied and going green

HIA management have learned much from the earlier stages of the airport’s development. “You are always building on lessons learned,” says Engr. Al Meer. “The right way to do it is to learn from your mistakes – you will never build something that is perfect. But we’ll try to make it as perfect as possible!”

The biggest criticism of Hamad International Airport’s original design centered on the passenger flow, meaning that many of the airport’s key commercial locations were difficult for transit passengers to find. “We’ve improved the balance,” observes Engr. Al Meer. “We control the flow better now for the passengers and direct them towards our duty free. The expansion is designed to be friendlier towards the passengers, especially those who are not used to travelling, and travellers with families.”

Hamad International is also about to go green. Literally. “We currently lack some greenery around the terminal,” says Engr. Al Meer. “With the new expansion you will have the feeling that you are walking in the forest. The scale and quality and type of the landscaping is amazing.”

Airport becomes Artport: Al Safwa First Lounge hosts a magnificent representation of works from Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art. Here Martin Moodie is given a tour by Qatar Duty Free Vice President Operations Thabet Musleh.

“People come to the lounge and they don't want to leave,” says Engr. Al Meer.

Will there be a centrepiece, one to rival the Lamp Bear and Small Lie? Yes - and on a similarly grand scale, Engr. Al Meer promises. “The terminal is huge. For example, if you land in concourse D or E you cannot walk all the way to concourse A and B to view a centrepiece. So, we are building centrepieces around the terminal for passengers to enjoy.”

Phase three might be the top priority for HIA management but that doesn’t mean that improvements will stop at the existing facilities. Mr Badr is really challenging us in a positive way to keep improving the whole airport,” says Qatar Duty Free Vice President Thabet Musleh. “The whole retail and F&B in the south node will also go through a huge redevelopment over the next 18 months. Mr Badr is challenging both us and the brands – because when brands know that you have a new expansion they start saying, ‘Well, actually, I don’t want to invest here [in existing facilities] because I want to invest there.’ And we say no, this is the heart of the airport and we have to keep the heart pumping. When the extension comes, it’s going to be incremental to what we already do.”

“We cannot stop investing,” adds Engr. Al Meer. “If you go to any other airport in any other country, whenever they know that there is a new airport coming within four or five years, they tend to stop spending money on their current facilities. We don’t do this. For example, we are upgrading our whole check-in concept for passengers. We are creating a self-service for customers. We are upgrading all of our counters. We are upgrading all of our security screening equipment. With duty free we are making major and continuous changes.

“We never stop, because we are always investing in our infrastructure and we see things differently. Once the new expansion is ready, we want the current terminal to be at the same level of the new expansion. We don’t want people to have the feeling that they are walking from a 10-year-old facility to a brand-new one. They will experience the same quality, with the same investment, the same technology and the same concept.”

Hamad International Airport management are striving to create greater cohesion between the different zones of the vast airport.

Driven by the pursuit of excellence

I ask Engr. Al Meer what inspires and drives him each day about working in such a fascinating setting and sector. “Challenge,” he replies, without hesitation. “Every day is a new challenge. I come from a completely different background from aviation, a construction background. The only reason I accepted this job is for the challenge. It’s one of the best facilities in Qatar, one that had just opened as the gateway of the country.

“It was considered as an icon in the Middle East and now it is considered one of the icons in the whole industry worldwide. So, for us, the challenge is how to raise the bar for ourselves. That’s about always challenging ourselves. We will never settle at one level and say, “Okay we have now made it. No. And the good thing is that everybody working at the airport – all of the subsidiaries, the stakeholders, the government agencies – shares with us the same mindset. So, this is how you are able to achieve what you want to. It’s all about cooperation between the various entities and stakeholders.

“You don’t have this model everywhere. The airline, the airport, the duty free, the ground handling. It’s all one entity. If there is a problem in immigration, I pick up the phone to the general brigadier and say that there is a problem. He will respond immediately – he will never tell me, ‘This is not your business. Don’t get involved.’ Similarly, if he sees a problem in the duty free he will call Thabet.”

Aiming high: Hamad International’s Al Safwa First Lounge is dubbed the world’s only seven-star airport lounge.

Musleh cites an example of that joined-up thinking from the last Eid al-Fitr, a peak travel and shopping period that marks the celebration by Muslims worldwide of the end of Ramadan. Due to the high numbers travelling through HIA, passport control became highly congested. “Mr Badr sat down with the team here and he said, ‘Look, we really need to push passport control.’ The feedback we had from travellers all over Twitter was how smooth the airport operation was. And in return what did we get? Record duty free sales for four days in a row in arrivals.”

I put it to Engr. Al Meer that his and Group CEO Akbar Al Baker’s doors must be practically knocked down every year with pitches from international concessionaires wanting to run the duty free business. Why the insistence on maintaining operations in-house? The answer is again immediate. “Because you maintain quality. I will never settle for anything but the best. If you bring in other people [concessionaires] and if they meet their [financial] target then that’s it. Thank you so much.

“For us, that’s never the aim. We will never settle for that. The way we are doing business here and with the airline is different. We need to be pioneers in what we are doing. We need to bring new ideas, new concepts, for other people to follow us. We don’t want to be followers.”

“You have everything available there [in the Al Safwa First Lounge, from the duty free to the spa to hotel rooms. You even have a tailor.”

“Why would Hamad International Airport be more important than any other airport they are handling?” asks Engr. Al Meer, considering a scenario in which an outside duty free concessionaire were introduced. “The way they would operate HIA would be similar to any other airport in their portfolio. We don’t want this because HIA is not similar to any other airport. This is why we want people who are specialised and understand our vision, our mission. If you bring someone externally, they will work for whatever is best for their company.”

The biggest beneficiary of such a set-up is the consumer, Engr. Al Meer contends. “I’ll give you an example. When Thabet wants to fit-out some of his areas, he doesn’t have to get help from outside. Our people in HIA, our engineering department, will go and help him. And if we have certain events where we are running out of time and we cannot provide the appropriate gift, Thabet immediately jumps in the picture and says, ‘I’ll do it.’ He doesn’t even put his logo on those events.

“This is the way we think, so we complete and complement each other. We need to help each other to please our guests. We don’t call them our passengers or our travellers: they are our guests.”

Special moment: Qatar Duty Free Vice President Operations Thabet Musleh at the opening of the world-exclusive Dior Les Parfums Podium at Hamad International last November.

Lighting the way: Thabet Musleh and Martin Moodie in front of Hamad International's centrepiece, Lamp Bear.

Qatar Duty Free: “The whole retail and F&B in the south node will also go through a huge redevelopment over the next 18 months,” says Musleh.

Spirit of partnership: The Trinity Forum 2019 will be held in Doha. From left to right, Hamad International Airport Chief Operating Officer Engr. Badr Mohammed Al Meer; Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive, His Excellency Akbar Al Baker; The Moodie Davitt Report Founder & Chairman Martin Moodie; and Qatar Duty Free Vice President Operations Thabet Musleh attend the signing of The Trinity Forum agreement.

Qurated for you: Delegates to the 2019 Trinity Forum in Doha are set for a spellbinding experience, according to Engr. Badr Mohammed Al Meer. This new video, courtesy of Qatar's National Tourism Council, suggests why.


The Moodie Davitt eZine | Issue 255 | 15 January 2019