Khaled Almaeena
Khaled Almaeena

A report by the Bahrain civil aviation department stated that around 350,000 Saudis flew abroad from Manama airport in 2013. These were the latest statistics released indicating an eight percent increase from the previous year and probably last year’s figures were even higher. The secretary of the tourism committee at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry cited six reasons why Saudis choose to fly via Bahrain. Among them a larger number of direct flights, the close proximity of Manama airport to some areas of the Eastern Province, cheaper fares, better services and more destination options. Added to that, more suitable schedules and better customer services. This trend is continuing and if the aviation authority in the Kingdom does not take serious action, they will lose more passengers. Nowadays, passengers look for comfort and easy access which many of our airports, unfortunately, do not provide. Take, for example, Jeddah airport where last week two passengers one from Washington and the other from Kuala Lumpur had to wait almost four hours before they were cleared by immigration and customs. Many complain that the airport is chaotic. Other common complaints include substandard facilities, dirty restrooms, shabby lounges and less than friendly personnel. We know that a new airport is being built in Jeddah, but officials need to be reminded that it is not the buildings but the services and other amenities that are provided in many international airports today that can make a difference. Today, airports include massage chairs, Internet access, restaurants, shopping areas and comfortable lounges. For many, speed and efficiency are also major requirements. Passengers at the Kingdom’s airports often complain about poor customer service and flight delays. At times meals and other services are not provided to those whose flights have been delayed and no valid reasons are given for the delays. Yes, we are building airports and the government is doing its utmost to upgrade services, but the human factor should be given more attention. Airport employees should be better trained to cater to different nationalities who frequent our airports. The concept of service should be instilled in each and every employee. There should be behavioral skills training programs for all. This should include personnel in immigration, customs and all sectors of customer service. The national carrier Saudia is under pressure. It is going through a restructuring process and there are some initiatives to provide better standards for customer services. However, passengers cannot wait for schedules to change or for more aircraft to be bought. Better alternatives should be provided, and these shortcomings should be addressed, otherwise people will flock to whichever airline or airport can provide better services. Meanwhile, it is nice to note that several domestic airports now also handle international traffic. Abha is the exception and we all hope that the Civil Aviation authorities will allow foreign carriers to operate from there. Al-Gassim is an example of how giving permits to other carriers has helped passenger growth. The boom to the local economy can also be noticed as more Saudi nationals are employed. Saudization is not just about employing people but is also about creating jobs. On-the-job training is crucial for better services and far-reaching positive social results. In the case of King Fahd airport the challenge is bigger. We cannot afford protectionism. We have to be better providers and offer speed, space and splendor, and until we do that passengers will be rushing to Bahrain. — Reprinted with permission of the Saudi Gazette and Khaled Almaeena. The writer is Editor-at-Large. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter: @KhaledAlmaeena