What impression of the Kingdom do visitors get at Jeddah airport?

I recently read a report that the airport in Jeddah would be completed by mid-2016.  Finally, I said to myself, but with some reservation as such announcements in the past have proven to be no more than public relations stunts aimed at mollifying an increasingly irritated army of passengers and patrons.

It was in 2009 that I watched the director of the airport on Saudi TV boldly claiming to the late King Abdullah that the project would be completed by 2012 during the late King’s visit to the facility.  He was being shown a variety of models and slides when he bluntly asked when the project would be completed and 2012 was the answer.

In January of 2014, Prince Fahd Bin Abdullah, president of the General Authority of Civil Aviation boldly stated that the “new King Abdulaziz International Airport with world-class facilities” would be ready by the end of the year.  Well, if my calendar is correct, it is well past 2012 and 2014.  In fact, it will soon be 2016.

What makes Jeddah airport more noteworthy than other airports in the Kingdom is that it is the primary gateway for visitors to the holy shrines.  It is where first impressions are quickly formed.  And this airport has been severely criticized in the past for the lax manner with which airline staff as well as custom and immigration personnel deal with arriving passengers.  Tired and haggard from long trips, passengers have complained of long delays at immigration counters staffed by indifferent personnel. And once beyond the experience of getting through immigration and passports and out of the arrival hall, visitors face another dilemma.

Jussi, a long-term expatriate from Finland captures the scene very well based on personal experience which visitors can relate to.  He writes: “I wish to bring attention to a gross and sad practice that all expats and visitors face upon arriving at Jeddah airport.

“When we cross the last gate to the public area where family and friends usually meet passengers,  we are faced with countless men in their white thobes all crying: ‘TAXI! YOU NEED TAXI!’ Some ask quietly and discretely, while others surround us and speak loudly.

“After being subjected to so many offers, I ask how much and they say: ‘TWO HUNDRED’ which we ignore and continue walking out to the taxi line outside the terminal buildings.  They follow us persistently and then bring the price down to ‘ONE HUNDRED FIFTY.’

“I reject their offer as I do not live far and offer them SR50.  The men who act kind of official and try to keep order with their badges agree with the prices and try to get the taxis to accept our offer because we live close to the airport. There are dozens of taxis all waiting for the SR150 customers.

“This is shameful and very intimidating, because no taxis should be allowed to be in the arrival hall. Taxis should be controlled as they are in Riyadh and in most all international airports.

“Riyadh airport is a long way from the city and the maximum a taxi can charge for the trip is SR 80. This first ‘Welcome to Jeddah’ for foreign arrivals is the worst possible, because it shows the kind of rip-off attitude some people have in this fantastic city. It is the worst welcome, because it takes place in an area that can be totally and easily controlled and organized.

“So I accept an offer for SR70  by a private limousine driver who is also fed up with the taxi drivers and drives us three blocks from the airport. Jussi.”

Here’s someone telling it like it is. He does not appreciate having to run through a gauntlet of greedy men soliciting fares upon his arrival.  His words reflect the feelings of many who are daily confronted with this chaotic atmosphere as they leave the arrival hall of Jeddah airport.

And so a word of advice to the airport authorities. While the airport structure is waiting to be completed perhaps by mid-2016 or later, why not take care of the little things that can be done now, such as organizing this stampede of individuals soliciting exhausted passengers?  It will not be your buildings only but the total package that will leave a lasting impression on visitors to the Kingdom.

The author can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter