In September 2023, Red Sea International Airport (RSI) welcomed its inaugural flight. The airport, situated on the west coast of Saudi Arabia, is a key part of the country’s Red Sea Project, which aims to create a luxury regenerative tourism destination on the untouched west coast.
RSI will be the gateway to the new holiday hot spot, which, by 2030, will consist of 50 hotels, 1,300 residential properties, a luxury marina, and entertainment and leisure facilities across 22 islands and six inland sites.
Starting with a blank canvas enabled the designers to create the airport’s identity from scratch. “The ambition of the project is barefoot luxury and being inspired by nature, so the terminal’s design was informed by its surroundings, such as the dunescapes, local fauna and flora, and the sea,” says Matthew Hayhurst, a partner at Foster + Partners, the architects behind the airport’s design.
The team explored a number of ideas relating to the landscape, from the flat desert to the mountains north of the site. “The ultimate solution everyone jumped on was this undulating roof that evoked the sand dunes,” says Toby Blunt, a senior partner at Foster + Partners. “That might sound a bit clichéd, but it was much more about the building settling in to that beautiful, natural landscape.”
Starting from scratch also enabled the team to design the whole airport rather than just the terminal, including the airfield and ancillary buildings. With such a pristine backdrop, they didn’t want to have this beautiful terminal surrounded by “the usual clutter around the airfield”, according to Hayhurst. “Having the opportunity to design the non-terminal buildings allowed us to play them down.” The solution? Consolidate all facilities into two simple, lozenge-shaped buildings on either side of the terminal and almost have them disappear into the surrounding landscape.
The airport’s location not only provided inspiration but also threw up challenges. For example, because the site was so remote, there was a need to explore ways in which key elements could be prefabricated off-site as well as working out the best way to deliver the building materials.
These materials also had to blend in to the surroundings as much as possible, so Foster + Partners made use of glass-fiber reinforced concrete (GRC), which could be closely color matched to the sand, helping the building to seamlessly fit into the landscape. The Saudi Arabian climate also had to be considered. Temperatures in summer can reach as high as 38°C, but in the height of the tourism season in winter the temperatures are much more comfortable.
“During the design process we wanted to ensure we didn’t create a big box of a building with one temperature outside and another inside, so we used a lot of landscaping and buffer spaces to create transition zones between the two. There’s no kind of thermal shock to the body,” explains Hayhurst.
Shading can be increased when needed via the cantilever roof, but when you create a lot of shade, you also have to think about daylight “as you don’t want to have the lights on all the time”, Hayhurst adds.
Foster + Partners’ solution was to orient the terminal facing north, where there’s the best light. “We did a lot of analysis to get the sweet spot right. You want to create shade, but make sure your plants can grow. A lot of research went into these kinds of things to create the eventual form of the building.”
An extension of the resorts
The airport will have a peak capacity of 900 passengers per hour, with visitor numbers limited to one million a year, based on the carrying capacity of the destination. These smaller numbers add to its luxury feel, with the airport’s goal to provide visitors with a five-star level of service from the moment they land to the moment they depart.
“It was very evident from the beginning that The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC) wasn’t looking for your typical kind of airport experience,” notes Blunt. “They wanted us to really challenge that – the queuing, the processing, etc – and focus on the guest experience and convenience.”
This goal of recreating the feel of a resort drove many of the design decisions, including the creation of sunken courtyards for the arrivals gardens. The aim of bringing the experience of a private airport terminal to every traveler also informed the design of the airport’s five mini-terminals, or pods, which provide smaller, intimate spaces that feel luxurious and personalized. In addition, this layout enables areas to be closed during slower periods, conserving energy.
“We could have dealt with the small capacity in a single volume, but we felt that many airports do that and we could create a more intimate experience, so we broke this single volume down into five pods,” says Blunt. “The airport’s radial form was driven by the need to allow a certain number of aircraft to park close to the building, so that was another factor, and also using the cantilever roof to create a shading element.”
The traveler experience
Instead of traipsing down featureless air-conditioned tunnels, arriving visitors walk down the steps off the aircraft immersed in the sights, smells and heat of the destination, before moving into the buffer zone – a garden experience that introduces travelers to the country’s flora and fauna and takes them to processing and quickly out to the Welcome Center. During this time, checked-in baggage will be delivered straight to their room at the resort, unless otherwise requested, in which case they can pick it up at the Welcome Center’s concierge service.
“We’re letting them know that their holiday has begun and providing a seamless transfer from flight to hotel,” Blunt says. The departure experience is usually longer than when arriving, so these spaces have been designed for longer waiting times, with larger, more relaxed spaces.
Passengers dropped off outside the terminal can quickly enter one of the five departure pods, which also feature spas and restaurants. Similar to the arrival experience, baggage is loaded directly onto the aircraft from the resort, having been checked in there. “One of the key things about the design of the building is that when passengers arrive at the curb at drop-off, they can immediately see through the building to the parked aircraft – there’s that visual connection,” says Blunt.
“One of the things we wanted to do was really bring back the joy of travel. A lot of airports today are just like shopping malls. “We wanted to turn this on its head and go back to when flying was such an exciting thing to do, explains Blunt. “That visual connection enables passengers to see where they’re going, and the smaller pods speed up processing in a way that’s similar to arriving at a hotel. Yes, travelers still have to go through scanners and so on, but they’re very quickly in the lounge where they can look out over a view of the mountains.”
In addition to the customer experience, sustainability has been at the forefront of minds from the start of this project, with the airport designed to make the most of shading and natural ventilation and minimize reliance on air-conditioning.
Sustainability also informed the terminal’s pod design. The team knew that the airport was going to start with very small numbers of visitors until the number of resorts grew, and even by 2030 passengers would fluctuate with the tourism season.
“We knew there might be only a couple of flights a week at the start, and you don’t need to operate a whole building to handle that. So you can start with just one pod and build that number up as you go along, matching your energy use to the aviation demand,” explains Hayhurst.
Plans are also underway to ensure the terminal – and the entire destination – is powered by 100% renewable energy, as Michael White, chief commercial officer at the airport’s operator, Red Sea International Airport Commercial Department (DAA International), explains.
“Soon the destination will be powered by its own microgrid, with all its energy from solar power. This theme continues at the operational level – the majority of key operational vehicles on-site now are powered by renewable energy. Additionally, RSI is aspiring to be the first airport in Saudi Arabia to make sustainable aviation fuel available,” he enthuses. The airport’s passive and active sustainability systems have led to the development being awarded LEED Platinum status – the first certification of that level in the Middle East.
“Ultimately there’s a lot of pressure on airports in terms of how sustainably they perform. We all know that people aren’t going to stop flying, so what we want to try to do is make the buildings more responsible,” says Blunt. “I think we’ve tried to do this through the ways we’ve discussed. The airport obviously has operational needs, but we can at least find ways to design facilities so that they have less impact on the surrounding landscape and the overall environment.”
The airport currently operates out of a small commercial terminal that can accommodate one flight an hour. Flights will quickly expand to multiple domestic frequencies per week from Riyadh and then Jeddah. In late 2024 the main terminal will open as Phase 1 resorts open their doors, welcoming international flights for the first time. At this point the smaller terminal will transition into an independent seaplane terminal. With 85% of the world’s population able to reach the airport within an eight-hour flight, there are big hopes that the Red Sea will become a popular luxury holiday destination in Saudi Arabia.