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Tech Excellence | Building Muscat's new airport

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Exacting designs, and a two year warranty period were among challenges facing contractors building the new airport for Oman’s capital, Muscat.

The redevelopment of Muscat International Airport is the largest project ever to be undertaken in the history of the Sultanate of Oman. The state-of-the-art passenger terminal building alone is costing £1.4bn, and its design and construction was always going to be a major challenge.

As with many Middle Eastern mega-projects, the numbers sound extraordinary. The terminal sits on a floorplate of 418,202m2 – equivalent to 80 football pitches. The structures required more than 31,100t of structural steel –  seven times the amount used in the Eiffel Tower. They also required almost 520,000m3 of concrete – twice that in the Burj Khalifa. Over 240M hours were worked in total with a peak workforce of 22,000 representing 41 different nationalities.

12M passengers per year

The new Muscat International Airport will have the capacity to handle 20M passengers per annum. Further expansions planned in three subsequent phases will ultimately boost the airport’s capacity to 24M, 36M and 48M passengers.

Yet it opened earlier this year after 70 months of construction having set some pretty incredible records, not least around health and safety with, at one stage, 14M hours worked without a lost time injury.

This achievement is testament to the entire project team, led by project director Jeff Brightman. The team comprises a three-way joint venture (JV) known as the BEB Consortium. The first B and the E represents the civils design and build contractor, a JV of Bechtel and Turkish contractor Enka. Working alongside that JV – and making up the final B – is mechanical and electrical contractor, local Omani firm Bahwan.

Brightman is a Bechtel veteran of many a mega-project and has worked on some of the biggest power station projects in the United States. But even to him, Oman stands out. “That figure: 240M hours worked. To me, that’s the biggest accomplishment. Few people in their career will be able to say they’ve been able to work on a job with 240M hours worked.”

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Dsc 2808 crop

Bechtel was part of the JV which built the new airport

The passenger terminal building and maintenance yard buildings started commercial operation in March, bang on time. And again Brightman is proud. “For a building of this complexity, in a country and a region that has never had anything like this, that was a phenomenal achievement.”

Brightman explains how the project learned from other terminal openings around the world – not least Heathrow’s Terminal 5 – and set up an emergency operating centre to handle the opening and switchover from the old terminal. Based in the centre were the contractors, the owner/operator, the baggage handling subcontractor, the main airline and other key stakeholders such as the Royal Omani Police. It was manned 24/7 in the weeks leading up to the opening and remains operational today, months after the switchover, albeit somewhat scaled back.

But in the hours, days and weeks building up to switchover it was a busy place, says BEB operational readiness and airport transfer and third party interface manager Fatma Gobel.

“It was madness for a long time, but now it is calm,” she says.

But it meant that if there was an issue the right decision-maker was in the room.

In the event, there were few issues. The real challenges, it seems, lay in design and construction.

Demanding contract

So what made it so? Well, for a start Bechtel took on a $1.8bn (£1.4bn) lump sum contract, incorporating not just detailed design and construction, but a two-year post-opening maintenance/warranty period. That would have been pretty bold, even for a fairly bog-standard construction project – and this was much more complex.

The steel structure of the passenger terminal building consists of extremely heavy curved trusses. The first challenge was production, as manufacturing such irregular components comes with its own hurdles. In the end Turkish steelwork subcontractor Cimtas successfully completed production.

Transportation was also a major challenge. Due to weight constraints, the trusses were produced at Cimtas’ factory in one piece before being broken down into their component parts and shipped to site where they were welded back together on site as a pre-assembled truss ready for lifting into place.

This too was no mean feat. As the weight of the trusses was substantial, two 1,600t crawler cranes were used. To put that in context, Brightman explains that these were two of the three largest crawler cranes in the world. They were supplemented with 12 tower cranes at peak.

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Img 5795 crop

The internal trusses are exacting

“The trusses proved quite a challenge in design and construction,” notes Brightman. Yet the erection work was safely completed, notwithstanding the challenges of an active runway next to the site, together with interface issues.

The heavy engineering was only half the battle. In keeping with the desire for the terminal to serve as a gateway to Oman, the internal architecture is exacting. Described as a “reinterpretation of traditional Omani architecture”, the building is designed to offer a feeling of solidity but with transparency to unite the interior and exterior, and extensive use of traditional musharabiya latticed glazing to veil and filter the light. The design also includes several internal courtyards designed to represent a riyad, or garden.

There was also the challenge of retaining as much flexibility with the internal retail and lounge space as possible through design and construction, a particular challenge when you are on a lump sum contract.

“The biggest thing is trying to anticipate the future,” says Brightman. “You won’t know the tenants, or the throughput, at the start. You don’t always get it right but you try and make it as flexible as possible, without getting carried away as we’re only paid for the capital costs.”

Changes forced onto the JV included the need to put in an additional electrical room to bring more power to the business lounges after a late decision was made to include onsite cooking facilities. Similarly, Brightman’s team has spent the last month adding over 1,000 IT points in the retail space.

Integrated artwork, such as balustrades, glazed escalator sides, glass screens, water features, stone carvings and patterns were all part of the project and the attention to detail is exacting.

75 different ceilings

Fiddly does not begin to cover it, particularly when you also have to maintain it for two years: “We have 75 different ceiling types here,” notes BEB?? warranty and planned maintenance manager Michael Gleeson. “We’ve got cherry veneer, glass mosaics, LED lighting panels… It’s very tough, the number of transitions we have.”

It’s certainly going to be an interesting challenge over the next two years, and a new one for Bechtel. “The two year maintenance period is quite an intelligent thing,” observes Brightman. “But it is a new experience for us. Working in an operations environment is a good skill to learn.”

Worker welfare is a recurring concern in the Gulf region, but on this project, the team believes its approach to be exemplary.

The 22,000 workforce was housed in five camps with the largest,

Al-Azaiba, a temporary home for 12,000 people. If not quite a city in its own right, it is certainly a decent-sized town, and the project team ensured it had all the facilities you would expect, ranging from basics such as a 24/7 medical centre to cultural and recreational facilities including a floodlit cricket stadium.

This focus on worker welfare and Bechtel’s “keeping safe every day” mantra has contributed to what Brightman sees as a transformation in safety culture in the region.

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Se beb 03pc phg 02138 ptb north, t27 roof truss installation

Erecting the trusses required two of the world’s largest crawler cranes

“We have worked 240M hours. During that we have had some incidents of safety. But right now we are 288 days without a lost time incident and that is at the end of the project when the pressure is on. That is testament to the team and the senior management and their leadership,” says Brightman.

There are simple examples. One is that all workers on scaffolding were tied off so they could not fall. That, says Brightman, took effort to instil as a culture but it is now there.

BEB’s work also included the installation of extensive mechanical and electrical systems, including a rainwater management system, the plumbing system, the fire-fighting system, cooling systems, a water feature and pools, power distribution systems, the lighting control system, the access control system, the CCTV system and the IT structured cabling system.

Clearly a high degree of integration was needed. “An airport, to make it safe, reliable and predictable requires, in our scope alone, 113 systems and a lot of them interlink and all that needs to come together,” says Brightman.

So how does client Oman Airports Management Company feel about it all? “We have a good relationship,” says Brightman. “We wouldn’t be able to walk this place so freely if we didn’t,” he observes.

Local contractors

Brightman says the client is particularly pleased with the extent to which work was done by local contractors wherever possible. In the civils JV, 25% of work went to Omani firms. But it goes beyond the direct labour force.

“Our on-site caterer – that was their first job. They now cater for the Royal Palace and the VIP lounges here. They own restaurants in the city centre,” explains Brightman. It’s just one example but there are others.

“We’ve done a lot to develop local contractors and local people,” he says. “It’s fun too,” he adds. “It means you get to meet a lot of local people who want to learn. So we approach these things with open minds.”

The effort has not gone unnoticed by the client. “We are delighted that so many local people and businesses were a part of it – the impact runs deep in our community, and we owe much of that to the collaborative ethos and teamwork throughout,” says Oman Airports Management Company chief executive Sheikh Aimen bin Ahmad Al-Hosni.

“So far, feedback from passengers who have experienced the new airport has been overwhelmingly positive. We’re confident Muscat International Airport will soon rank among the best in the world.”

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