A travel and trade blockade imposed by four Arab states has spurred air-freight volumes to record highs at Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, a senior official has said.
The closure of Qatar's only land border with Saudi Arabia has led to an airlift-style operation to safeguard the supply of goods and produce spanning fresh milk to industrial gear previously transported by truck, Badr Mohammed al-Meer, the airport’s chief operating officer, said in an interview.
Freight volumes at the hub, which opened in 2014, jumped 10% to 514,000 tonnes in the first quarter, according to the latest available figures. The passenger tally slid 11% to 8.73mn and the number of aircraft takeoffs and landings fell 17% to 52,200.
Qatar Airways has scrapped flights to 19 cities in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt as a result of curbs imposed by the countries on June 5 last year. The measures also mean carriers including Dubai-based Emirates, Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, EgyptAir and Saudi Arabian Airlines no longer serve the HIA.
Prior to the embargo, the airport, which is owned by Qatar Airways, had forecast a 20% jump in passenger traffic for 2017 versus 2015 levels. “Whatever we expected is not valid anymore,” al-Meer said in his office at the $17bn hub, which is located on the shores of the Arabian Gulf south of Doha.
The surge in air freight has been led by imports from countries including Turkey, Iran, Morocco and Australia, substituting for loads that would have been flown or shipped from the boycotting states or trucked in from Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s new seaport opened in 2016, and the country had largely relied on the trans-shipment of containers from Dubai’s main port in Jebel Ali.
Qatar Airways, the world’s second-biggest cargo carrier, has 23 freighters, all of them wide-bodies, and in April placed on order for five more Boeing Co 777Fs each with a capacity of 102 tonnes and worth a collective $1.7bn at list prices. The specialist fleet serves 60 destinations, while the carrier’s 200 passenger planes transport so-called belly freight to a further 150 locations.
The HIA is also pressing on with plans to double cargo capacity to about 3mn tonnes a year by 2020, al-Meer said.
In the passenger segment, Qatar Airways’ services to African destinations including Khartoum, Lagos and Nairobi are taking longer as planes are forced into detours to avoid some territories.
Flights to South Africa can take an extra 75 minutes, while timings to some locations in Europe and the Asia-Pacific have also been stretched, according to al-Meer. The airline has had to become adept at switching between aircraft to suit demand and simulated flying conditions, helping to pare losses, he said.
The HIA has also attracted extra flights from India, Kuwait and Oman, and is full at peak hours and operating well above its designed capacity of 24mn passengers a year, with about 35mn expected in 2018.
Plans to increase capacity to 55mn people annually by the time Qatar hosts the 2022 soccer World Cup remain on course and construction of a further terminal could ultimately take the total to 70mn next decade.