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Sat 10 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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A royal family

It's out with the old and in with the new at Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan, as a private consortium drives forward its multi-million dollar overhaul.

It's out with the old and in with the new at Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan, as a private consortium drives forward its multi-million dollar overhaul.

The construction cranes are in place and columns are rising from the ground in preparation for the US$700 million rehabilitation and expansion works at Queen Alia International airport (QAIA), in Amman, Jordan.

Curtis Grad is the CEO tasked with the job of mobilising the ambitious project, which, it is hoped, will promote Jordan as a regional economic and tourist destination.

Under a 25-year concession agreement with the Jordanian government, Airport International Group (AIG) is responsible for the management and operation of the airport.

AIG is the umbrella name for a consortium consisting of airport operator, Aeroports de Paris, two construction companies, Joannou & Paraskevaides and J&P-Avax, investment house, Abu Dhabi Investment Company, the Kuwaiti financial institution, Noor and energy company, Edgo. Together, the group has formed a private partnership, with Grad at its helm.

Through an intensive phase of improvement and upgrades, QAIA will be fully operational by 2011, and it will be capable of handling over nine million passengers per year, with the capacity of further expansion to 12 million passengers.

According to Grad the completion date cannot come soon enough. "Currently, the terminal is designed for around two to three million passengers, but we are expecting around 4.2 million passengers this year. This is an increase of 12-15% on last year's figures and despite the economic downturn, we recorded growth of around 8% or 9% in September 2008," explains Grad.

The rapid growth in passenger numbers has been the catalyst for not only the expansion of the airport, but also the refurbishment of the existing terminal.

"The first and most important step when we first arrived, was to run a building that could provide for passengers for the next three years," Grad points out.

"We couldn't operate it as it was, and as a private company there is a huge expectation of good customer service that includes food and beverage retail."

Grad explains that the terminal was in dire need of brightening up and glass partitions have been fitted to let in the natural light. Graphic images, improved ventilation, and designated smoking areas, mean that the passenger experience is greatly improved.

"At cost, we have made a decision to improve facilities and washrooms, ensure efficient queuing systems that are conducive to what would be expected at an international airport and install adequate signage to help people get around the airport quickly and efficiently." The refurbishment work is now in its third and final phase, at a total cost of $3 million.Services have also been given a boost from the creation of a competitive environment.

"One of the first things we did was put in a tender for a second ground handler and since September we have had two companies competing. This has created positive effects as it will drive down cost and improve service levels," explains Grad.

In terms of economic contribution, Grad believes the airport will have a massive impact.

"At the moment our focus is on developing the business. We want to build up a momentum so that when the new terminal opens we have new carriers, as well as new services that will leverage and build on the success of Royal Jordanian airlines."

At present, 40% of Royal Jordanian's traffic is connecting traffic. QAIA is positioned between Dubai and European hubs and its strong geo-political position means, Grad says, it is being pursued by airlines wanting to operate their services out of the airport.

"We have met with 16 passenger airlines over the last few weeks, of which 12 have expressed an interest in increasing frequency of services. Six of those 12 contacted us personally and two have introduced new services. One of those is Austrian Airlines and most recently BMI, which has upgraded from an A321 service to a daily service with an A330. This adds an extra 150 seats a day, which is a huge vote of confidence when you consider what is happening in the rest of the world. The general feeling I get is that, where they have the choice, the airlines feel that opportunity and stability is in this area."

The project is also attracting Jordanian professionals who, Grad explains, see it as a source of pride to work on. "For instance our chief technical officer was working at Athens International airport but has returned to Jordan to work with us."

As the terminal nears completion it will incorporate new technology and upgrades, including a complete overhaul of the baggage screening system. This means employing a workforce that is capable of learning new skills.

"We have inherited a very large workforce from the government and we are taking stock," admits Grad.

"We want people that are able to take on the training required to work in the new building, and individuals that are interested in upgrading their skills. It is currently a very analogue building, but this will change and we need people that are technologically ready. Where people are less able, we need to find opportunities for them elsewhere and also bring in new blood. It is important to have a blend," says Grad.

Creating new jobs in the region and expanding QAIA's hub status is, so far, detracting the CEO's attention away from the possible negative effects of the current global economic situation.

"We are building for the next 25 years, so I am unperturbed by the economic climate. We want to build for the future and continue to market ourselves to generate new traffic and new routes. In 2009, we expect to see a growth rate in the mid-single digits, which is very positive at this moment in time."

Biography

Curtis Grad joined AIG in June 2008. Previously, he held the position of general manager at Larnaca International airport, Cyprus. Grad held this position for two years and lead ‘build-operate-transfer' projects under a similar public-private partnership to that of QAIA. Prior to his job at Larnaca, Grad was vice president of operations at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, Jamaica from 2003-06.

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