‘Gateway to the Kingdom’ closes door on 40-year saga
Pilots, staff look back as King Abdulaziz International Airport’s south terminal makes history again
King Abdulaziz International Airport’s southern terminal — a gateway to the Kingdom for almost 40 years — has closed its doors for the final time, bringing an end to an unrivalled chapter in Saudi aviation history.
With a design modeled on Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C, the iconic tent-like structure has seen millions of travelers pass through its highceilinged halls since its historic opening in 1981.
Now the southern terminal and its services will be moved to the airport’s latest global destination, T1, just a few miles away.
While the terminal doors will close, memories of the airport and its place in the Kingdom’s history remain.
Saad Al-Shehri, former vice president of safety and security at Saudi Arabian Airlines, said that the airport’s inauguration in April 1981 was a moment of national pride and a “cultural shift in aviation and logistics services in the Kingdom.”
King Abdulaziz International Airport was characterized by its large size and the beauty of its design, he said.
“The airport was one of the most beautiful ever designed. It was distinguished by its smooth flow of movement,” said Al-Shehri.
“The departure lounges were separate from arrivals, and the Saudi Airlines flight halls were separate from those dedicated for foreign airlines. Modern and comfortable jet bridges were used for passengers to board and disembark. These were used in only three airports around the world to my knowledge — King Abdulaziz Airport, Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC, and Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport.”
Al-Shehri added: “The airport was also characterized by its modern buildings, complementing operational, technical and support services, whether related to the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) and airport management or what is related to Saudi Airlines.” He said that for the first time in the Kingdom, “modern and spacious buildings were allocated to airport management and a building for Saudi Airlines’ operations, which included pilots’ management, air service management, royal flight management and more.”
Former pilot Capt. Ali Badeeb was on duty when the airport opened almost 40 years ago.
“It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life,” he recalled. “I was full of joy when I moved to the new airport, which was equipped with the latest technology relating to operations, maintenance, passenger service and air navigation systems at the time.” Badeeb said that he has “mixed feelings of sadness and joy” as he bids farewell to the terminal.
“We raised the capabilities of loyal men who dedicated their lives to serve their country, and this building witnessed a great leap forward in the aviation sector in the Middle East,” he said.
Former Saudi Arabian Airlines assistant general manager Ali Malat said the airport’s opening “inspired all Saudis” because it was a sign of expansion and development, followed by King Khalid Airport in Riyadh and then King Fahd Airport in Dammam.
Malat said that airports at that time “were small and in the heart of the cities,” and described King Abdulaziz International Airport as a “real breakthrough.”
“We were eagerly waiting for the airport building. It was completed very quickly, at a time when Jeddah had a narrow geographic area and the city was not as big as it is today.”
Malat said that King Abdulaziz the latest technology of its time.” Capt. Essam Yeslam said that the history of aviation in Saudi Arabia has been linked from the outset to the training of cadres working in the sector’s facilities and departments for both civil and military use.
“When we were young, we used to look with admiration and fascination at everything new in this field, and we are grateful for the special care that our country and our leadership are paying to this sector, giving special interest to all developments and innovations worldwide,” he said.
Capt. Yeslam noted that urban expansion throughout the Kingdom during the 1970s put a burden on the old Jeddah airport, located in the center of the city, surrounded by buildings from all sides.
“King Abdulaziz International Airport was designed along the model of Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., as resources were dedicated to design a new and modern airport with up-to-date characteristics approved by King Faisal.”
He said: “Fortunately, all sections of King Abdulaziz International Airport became fully operational, including the northern and southern facilities, pilgrims’ halls with an annual capacity of nearly 8 million passengers, modern navigational equipment, three runways that were at the time a great leap forward in the process of the development and modernization of the Kingdom, accompanied by a major expansion in the fleet of Saudia Airlines, and an increase in its international and domestic flights, international and private airlines companies, and in the number of pilgrims.”
Yeslam said that 30 million passengers passed through the airport in its first expansion phase and there were plans to host 80 million passengers by the third stage — one of the most notable developments he has seen since beginning service with Saudia in 1977.
King Abdulaziz International Airport created a revolution in aviation in the Middle East and, more specifically, Saudi Airlines. Ali Malat The iconic tentlike structure has seen millions of travelers pass through its highceilinged halls since its historic opening in 1981.
Above: King Khalid and Prince Abdullah at the inauguration of King Abdulaziz International Airport in April 1981.
An old ad in 1981 welcoming King Khalid and congratulating him for the opening of the new airport.