Doha’s new Hamad International Airport finally opens for business

Updated at 2:50 pm with more details from this morning’s press conference, and at 4:20pm with photos from Ray Toh.

Doha’s much anticipated, much delayed new airport, Hamad International (HIA), has finally welcomed its first passengers.

At close to noon today, Fly Dubai flight FZ015 from Dubai touched down at the terminal 45 minutes behind schedule, signaling the beginning of passenger operations at the airport.

Qatar Airways landing

Victoria Scott

About half an hour earlier, a ceremonial Qatar Airways flight carrying VIPs also flew into the new airport, after a very short flight from neighboring Doha International Airport.

The aircraft was greeted by two water cannons, assembled dignitaries and members of the press.

Although the first aircraft to land at HIA today, this flight was not the first aircraft to fly into the airport – HIA has seen numerous test landings, including the high profile visit of the Airbus A350 in February.

‘Challenges’ in construction

Officials from the $15.5 billion HIA and operating airline Qatar Airways held a press conference this morning to mark the opening.

When asked by Doha News what had been going on at the airport since last year’s thwarted soft launch on April 1st, the national carrier’s CEO Akbar Al Baker said that “certain issues about international standards which had been raised by authorities over the last year had to be addressed,” and that these had taken longer to resolve than expected.

“But, we should forget about what happened in the past, and now look to the future,” he added.

Although he did not comment specifically on reasons for the repeated delaying of the airport’s opening, he did say that Civil Defense had “worked hard” to “raise security standards at the airport.”

HIA officials also gave some more details about plans for the DIA once all commercial passenger traffic moves across to the new airport next month.

Journalists were told that the committee “has some ideas” to convert some of the area – a key piece of land near the center of the city – into “grassy areas and roads.”

Gulf Helicopters and the Qatar Aeronautical College would also use the runway and facilities, the officials said. No specific details about the fates of the existing departure and arrival terminals were revealed.

Opening welcomed

Reaction to the official opening has been enthusiastic, as residents look forward to an easier, smoother travel experience.

Today’s launch is restricted to only 10 airlines. These are:

  • Biman Bangladesh Airlines
  • Fly Dubai
  • Air Arabia
  • Iran Air
  • Air India Express
  • Yemenia Yemen Airlines
  • Pakistan International Airlines
  • Nepal Airlines
  • Syrian Airlines
  • Pegasus Airlines

All other airlines, including Qatar Airways, are scheduled to move over to the new airport on May 27.

Here’s what the departures board looked like first thing this morning:

Passenger experience

Although HIA is now open to passengers, it’s clear that there’s still some way to go before the airport’s 80 shops and 30 restaurants and cafes are ready to receive customers.

2014-04-30 12.15.08

Victoria Scott

At present, there are only two operational cafes – one in the check-in area, and one next to the departure gates. Additionally, premium passengers (and some card holders) have use of the new Oryx lounge, which economy passengers can also enter for QR 140.

The only retail outlets currently open belong to Qatar Duty Free. Large areas clearly allocated to retail remain covered in generic HIA hoardings. It’s unclear how many of these outlets will be ready to open in time for May 27th, when all of DIA’s remaining flights will move over to the facility.

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Victoria Scott

However, despite the current lack of retail and dining diversions, passengers departing from the terminal this morning appeared to be enjoying the lack of queues at passport control and security, and check in areas also seemed to be functioning well.

Doha News spoke to a group of Nepalese passengers eagerly awaiting a flight to Kathmandu this morning. They said that they were impressed by the new airport, which they found to be “much better” than DIA.

Meanwhile, passengers landing at the airport have also reported a smooth experience, although some told Doha News that their friends and relatives had been late picking them up due to the unfamiliar road layout around the airport.

Passengers arriving at one airport and departing from another during the changeover period will be able to use free transfer buses being laid on by the airport authorities.

Delayed opening

The HIA was originally supposed to be completed in 2009. It has since missed several opening deadlines, including Dec. 12, 2012 (12/12/12) and April 1, 2013, when the launch was scrapped only an hour before a passenger plane was set to land.

The exact reason for these delays remains unclear, although last year, Civil Defense safety approvals were not met.

The new airport represents a significant increase in capacity over the existing Doha International Airport, which has been under strain during peak travel periods.

Passenger traffic through Doha just keeps on rising, as the city is becoming an increasingly important aviation hub. In March, for example, 13.8 percent more people traveled through the airport than in the same time last year.

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About Victoria Scott

Victoria Scott is Editor-at-Large at Doha News. Before moving to Qatar in 2009, she was a broadcast journalist for BBC News for eight years. She's also worked for Al Jazeera, Reuters and The Telegraph. She has a postgraduate degree in Broadcast Journalism from City University, London, and an undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature from King's College, London.