DUBAI: Domestic passenger traffic in Riyadh’s main airport has returned to nearly 60 percent capacity, after closing for more than two months during the summer.
All flights in, out, and within Saudi Arabia were grounded in March as part of the Kingdom’s policies to help curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). While international flights will not fully resume until January, domestic flights restarted at the end of May.
“Domestically, we’ve seen a considerable return to traffic. So, we would be in the 50 to 60 percent return of traffic to pre-COVID-19 levels,” said Nicholas Cole, CEO of DAA International, the Irish company which manages Terminal 5 at King Khalid International Airport (KKIA) on behalf of Riyadh Airports Co. (RAC).
Cole told Arab News that numbers began to recover quickly after domestic flights resumed in May, but he forecast that a return to 100 percent of levels seen before COVID-19 would not happen until “the middle of next year.” That is mainly due to the lack of international traffic feeding into the domestic flights and the reduction in pilgrims flying.
DAA International is owned by the Irish government and manages 16 airports around the world, including operations in Paphos and Larnaca, in Cyprus, Beirut, Riyadh, Doha, Manama, and Muscat.
While Riyadh’s domestic traffic had recovered quickly, Cole said COVID-19 had dented traffic across the board at its international operations.
“We’ve seen between a 70 and 85 percent reduction in passenger numbers from this time last year. This is something we’re seeing across our airport group generally,” he added.
While many airlines and airports were forced to make staff redundant this summer, at Riyadh airport they decided against staff or salary cuts.
“In order to make sure that the staffing levels are what we require, I think the frontline pay being hit is obviously the last thing you would do,” Cole said.
DAA International also took the decision to stop charging RAC management fees while Terminal 5 was closed during the summer.
“We decided that it was not appropriate for us to charge fees to Riyadh Airports Co. while the terminal was shut. So, we’ve reduced our fees considerably for what we’re doing for Riyadh airport. That is only appropriate as we are essentially a provider of services to them,” he added.
This was in contrast to its operations in Dublin, where salaries were reduced to 80 percent and the airport operator is looking to cut around a third of staff.
While last week Pfizer and BioNTech announced that a COVID-19 vaccine had proved to be 90 percent effective and could be rolled out in the coming months, Cole believed it would not mean an end to testing completely.
“I think it’s testing and vaccines. I think testing is here for at least 12 to 18 months going forward. I think even in a vaccine world, there will be a crossover, I think people will be expected to take the test,” he said.
Abu Dhabi International Airport also announced last week that it was trialing the use of artificial intelligence to shorten queues and support social distancing. Cole pointed out that this may not be necessary at Riyadh as there was already a high level of compliance with mask-wearing and social-distancing policies to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“Most Saudis are very compliant with the rules, wearing a mask in public is adopted wholesale, it’s very, very unusual that our guys on a shift are having to ask people to wear a mask. For example, across the 12-hour shift, our team might speak to two people to say, ‘please could you put your mask on.’”
While Cole could not give an exact breakdown of figures, total traffic – including international and domestic travel – amounted to 26 million passengers across all KKIA’s terminals in 2019, according to the DAA International website.