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The airport architect: TAV Group CEO on the aviation landscape

The airport architect: TAV Group CEO on the aviation landscape

Sani Şener, group CEO of Turkish airport construction company TAV Group, discusses the company’s future plans

Since TAV launched in 1997, the company has expanded from its base in Turkey to be a major player in the Gulf Cooperation Council, with projects in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman, as well as the recently announced new passenger terminal at Bahrain International Airport. How important is the Gulf region to TAV and what can we expect from it in the future?

“When we started this business we targeted emerging markets. The GCC’s geographical proximity to Turkey, cultural commonality and administrative similarity made us focus on the region. This is a big advantage for us and we will continue our focus on the region.

“TAV Airports is an investment and operations company and TAV Construction is an airport construction company. With these two companies we positioned ourselves for concessions and engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contracts of the airports in the region.

Medina Airport
Medina Airport

“We have invested in Medina Airport together with our partners and we built Riyadh Terminal 5, Qatar Doha Airport Terminal and Oman Muscat Airport Infrastructure on an EPC basis. We are continuing to construct Abu Dhabi’s Midfield Terminal and Bahrain’s Airport Terminal on an EPC basis as well with our construction arm, TAV Construction.

“With the new approach of Saudi Arabia’s government (based on its Vision 2030 reform plans), we think that airport privatisation projects will continue in the kingdom. So we will continue to pursue airport projects in the region.

“With the release of sanctions, I am sure the aviation sector will grow in Iran and there may be many opportunities there as well.

“We are also heading for Africa and Asia because the GCC is now one of the more developed markets in airports. Africa and Asia will be the emerging markets for airport construction and concessions in the near future.”

You have also been active in the UAE with non-aviation projects including Damac Towers by Paramount. How is that project progressing, and do you expect to undertake more projects of this type in the near future?

“Our construction company is working for Emaar in Turkey. And in Dubai we are building Damac Towers by Paramount. We have also built one of the tallest buildings in Dubai Marina 101 Hotel & Residences.

“We will only look at non-airport projects in Dubai and Saudi Arabia.”

There have been several high profile aviation accidents and incidents in recent months and years, ranging from engineering faults and pilot errors to terrorism and hijacking. How do these incidents affect TAV, if at all?

“It is true that there have been a lot of incidents in the aviation industry recently; accidents, terrorist attacks and some other external shocks. Air travel is definitely getting hit by these. However, globalisation enhances the mobilisation of goods and people. People have to fly and goods have to move.

“After seeing a plunge in air passenger numbers, there has always been a quick recovery in our sector. We can say that aviation and airport operations are very resilient businesses.”

Similarly, construction in the GCC has been hit by low oil prices and a global economic slowdown. How has this affected your business, your existing projects and plans for future ones?

“The airport business is not merely an infrastructure provider anymore; it is a commercial business. Governments and clients should allocate the necessary funds for airports because there is a return on their investments in airports. So the reduction in oil prices won’t prevent governments from investing in airports.

“For non-airport projects and for pure infrastructure projects, however, governments are reducing their budgets. So government expenditure is definitely being affected.

“That is why I think governments in the region will support privatisation projects – especially in infrastructure.”

You partner with Arabtec in the region – a company that has recently endured a difficult time on the stock market. Has your relationship survived? Or are you continually on the look out for alternatives in order to safeguard your own business’s delivery and reputation?

“We are partners with Arabtec for the Abu Dhabi Midfield project and Bahrain Airport project. We didn’t have any problems with them and we value their partnership. We will continue to cooperate with them in the region; they have huge construction expertise.”

Abu Dhabi Midfield Terminal Building
Abu Dhabi Midfield Terminal Building

Construction in the region has also had its critics recently, following the alleged poor treatment of workers on Qatar’s World Cup stadia, as well as the non-payment of workers by the Saudi Binladin Group. Do incidents like these give the industry a bad name? And how can leading companies improve the situation?

“There have always been critics of the construction industry, but construction companies are the locomotives of economies in every country. They also suffer from any changes to those economies.

“The main issue for construction companies is the prequalification criteria for brand projects. Prequalification standards for iconic projects must be very high to avoid tough competition.

“Tough competition can lead to companies lacking capable human resources, as well as health, safety and environmental awareness. They avoid quality because of costs. This is where many of the main problems in our industry come from. Companies with corporate governance, however, have the capability to comply with all kinds of requirements of the modern world.”

How has airport design changed in the past 20 years? Have airports become more of a statement of prestige than they used to be?

“Airports are smart buildings; they are the symbols of the country that they are in. They are the showrooms of the engineering, operational and financial capability of those countries.

“Foreigners get the first impression about a country when they arrive and get the last impression when they leave. And if they are transit passengers, they get the only impression of a country in the airport.

“So the engineering, architecture and technological systems, IT systems, and system integration are very important in airports.”

Normally, passengers will usually only see the completed project and the outer layer of all the work that has taken place, but what are the most difficult parts of airport construction? Where do the major challenges occur?

“All the players – airport operators, ground handling operators, retailers, airlines, immigration officers, security and all the others – must be coordinated from the first day. This is the important and hard part of airport construction.

 Doha Hamad Airport
Doha Hamad Airport

“In airport design, passenger flow, baggage flow and the commercialisation of the airport are the main important aspects. This will never change, but automation will continuously change – passengers want all the necessary data in their hands, through tablets, smartphones and so on.

“This will help them to be less anxious and happier. And happy passengers are needed at all airports.

Your firm uses green technologies and the new terminal in Bahrain, for example, is expected to receive the LEED Gold certificate. How important is it for TAV to be a leader in this aspect of construction?

 Bahrain airport
Bahrain airport

“A successful project management means delivering the project on time, within the given budget, with the required quality, applying high standards of health and safety and keeping environmental awareness high.

“Our company has always pursued these standards in all our projects.

“We want our workers to go home safe, we want our clients and our passengers to be happy and we want to sustain our awareness for the environment.

“In Medina Airport we have a LEED Gold certificate and in Izmir Airport we have a LEED Silver certificate. Bahrain will be another challenge for us to receive the LEED Gold certificate.”

On a personal level, you have invested a lot of time and energy into TAV, as well as various trade and economic boards. Do you still have the drive to push the business and yourself forwards or will you start to rein in your own involvement in the near future?

“At TAV, we have a succession plan and there are senior managers in line to be my successor. This is important to guarantee the future of TAV and the culture is stated very clearly.

“I am supporting our team by all possible means and I will continue to work in TAV as much as I can in the future. We are all executives of emerging markets. We have to continue to work for the wealth of our countries and for the wealth of the countries that we operate in.”

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