Machi 8, 2022
Dakika 5. Soma

How to run an airport

Dubai firm takes over operations at Zanzibar’s new Abeid Amani Karume International Airport 


Na Andrea Tapper

After a delay of eight years, the new Zanzibar airport terminal will be fully operational within weeks. Dubai firm dnata, an industry veteran running airports in 129 locations worldwide, is overseeing the countdown towards a smooth take-off. THE FUMBA TIMES was granted an exclusive glimpse into future operations.

Everything shines in grey, silver and white. The marble floor tiles are so well polished that I can see my reflection in them like in a mirror. We have passed the new Covid testing station downstairs with the first mobile, non-invasive screen testing in Africa, developed by a firm from Abu Dhabi – a revolution for the continent and Zanzibar! Now we are taking a smoothly running escalator to the first floor departure area, but once on its open gallery, Janis Balkens’ expression suddenly darkens.

Pointing at a strange array of standing desks just before the electronic security checkpoints, he turns to me and says: ”These should actually not be here any more.” Frequent Zanzibar travellers know only too well what the aviation expert is referring to: the chaotic place to fill ominous immigration forms – a much dreaded hassle for passengers upon arrival as well as departure. “We have even suggested to the airport authority to make visas more costly at the airport”, comments Janis Balkens, “just to encourage more passengers to get them online.” He assures me: “We will definitely have a one-stop immigration in the future.”

“No chaos is the most important”

To get rid of chaos, to alleviate anxiety and instead to allow for safe, efficient operations is Janis Balkens’ job. The 42-year-old highly-skilled airport operations manager from Latvia has been chosen to facilitate Zanzibar’s take-off into the future by planning and installing the entire operations at the sleek new, Chinese-built International Terminal 3.

Zenj flair and top technology

Balkens has come up with a blueprint to blend local Zanzibar flair with the latest technologies, such as seamless payments and digital advertising screens. He is attending to each and every detail: “For instance, we want airport employees to be properly dressed and trained to give a top first impression of the country”, he points out to me. 400 newly created local jobs, from porter to general manager, are currently being filled. “We had an enormous wave of applications”, the manager says.

Balkens himself is the regional CEO for new and emerging markets of Dubai firm dnata, the world’s largest air and travel services provider.

Contrary to what I first believed, it is not  unusual for an international airport to be managed by a foreign firm. That said, illustrous airports run under dnata’s wings: London Heathrow, the Singapore airport and John F. Kennedy New York, just to name a few. And now comes Zanzibar.

Until recently the new terminal here was a ghost building. But soon, says Balkens, there will be “efficiency and a beautiful Marhaba business lounge”.

There will be a Freddie Mercury theme location with merchandise and music (as announced in Forbes magazine) amidst 14 other shops and gastronomy outlets to help kill the long hours before often late-night departures.

There will be two top-notch duty frees upon departure and even upon arrival, mobile charging stations, sim card sellers, spice and coffee shops, and a playground for kids. “The airport will feel distinctively Zanzibari, yet spotlessly modern”, says Balkens enthusiastically, “you will feel, see and sense Zanzibar up to the last minute before departure. Your holiday will continue in the airport”.

Costa Coffee and fish exports

To ensure the envisaged metamorphosis of dead-end Terminal 3 into effervescent airport hospitality fun, a whole range of partner firms have come on-board. Some have been networking with dnata since it was founded in 1959, among them the firm SEGAP which specialises in managing airports, Egis for construction and mobility services, and Emirates Leisure Retail, a subsidiary of Emirates Airline, for shops and outlets. These include well-known Costa Coffee, Pret à Manger and Cooper’s Alehouse. All operations will be conducted in close cooperation with the Zanzibar Airport Authority (ZAA), Balkens said.

“What impressed us in Zanzibar is its growth, resilience and diversity as a destination”, the Dubai-based manager explained to me. Zanzibar is dnata’s first African airport client. “The island has visitors from everywhere”, Balkens says, “on top of that, the airport will also be a future export hub of cargo from the blue economy.” Towards this end, an entire new cargo handling plant with deep-freeze compartments and facilities for live animals, vehicles and dangerous goods is planned for 2023.

“Zanzibar has an incredible combination of history and holiday”, the aviation expert says. “The new airport will showcase the island’s tradition and style and unlock constant tourism and export growth.” The new terminal is expected to handle 4,000 flights and two million passengers per year. Before Corona, Zanzibar received about 530,000 visitors per year.

Domestic air traffic will from now on take place only at the old Terminal 2. The most historic part of the airport, the arched Terminal 1, built during British protection of the isles, is presently used as an office and local VIP lounge.

What went wrong in the past?

Why was the opening of the new airport terminal – first planned for 2014 – so drastically delayed although Zanzibar’s air passenger numbers increased by 15 per cent annually in the same period? The construction, funded by China and conducted by a Beijing company, had started in 2011. Some rumours had it that the new terminal was built too close to the runway. Others cited financial misunderstandings between China and the union government. Fact is, that after years of non-transparent squabbles, in 2016, another $56 million (approximately TZS126 billion) were set aside to complete the building. But even after Zanzibar’s former president Dr. Ali Mohamed Shein eventually inaugurated the terminal on 28 September 2020, in the midst of the first year of the corona pandemic, regular operations did not yet ensue. At 100,000 square metres the new terminal is five times bigger than the old one. “Retardations of such huge infrastructure projects are not uncommon”, Balkens plays down the conflict, “look at Germany’s new airport in Berlin.”

Get the airport app!

What makes a good airport in 2022? “One customer experience for all was yesterday“, says Balkens who holds an MBA in aviation from Donau University Krems in Austria. “Today everything needs to be customised. The Zanzibar airport will also have its own app.” Zanzibar will be the 130th airport where dnata oversees operations, but it will be “a unique experience like no other” promises the new man in charge.

Ready for take-off!

How Zanzibar’s new airport Terminal 3 will start operating:

•    27 March 2022: handling of flights by Dubai firm dnata to commence

•    1 May 2022: “Marhaba” Business lounge to open; day passes available

•    June 2022: 14 restaurants and shops including duty frees in departure and arrival section to be operational

•    4000 flights and 2 million passengers per year expected

•    2 ½ hours average staying time per passenger

•    Dubai firm dnata and partner firms to oversee ground and passenger handling, cargo, catering, a VIP „Marhaba lounge“, 14 shops and restaurants

•    Investment of US$ 7 million

•    400 new local jobs created

•    One-stop immigration procedure to be established

•    Dnata operating 129 airports in 36 countries, including Dubai, London Heathrow, JFK New York, Singapore, Sao Paolo, Rio, Geneva, Munich, Sydney, Manila, Riga

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