Abu Dhabi fully geared for growth
Working towards a common goal is vital for airport operators and the national carrier. Keith Mwanalushi looks at how Abu Dhabi International Airport is preparing for the surge in passengers, especially from Etihad Airways.
The on-going construction of the Midfield Terminal Building (MTB) at Abu Dhabi International is in response to the anticipated growth in passenger throughput at the airport. The new gateway is expected to accommodate 30 million passengers annually by the time it opens in 2017.
Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) has witnessed the completion of several key infrastructure projects over the last few years; an indication of the growing trend for air travel through the Emirate. “The growth in passenger traffic is testament to Abu Dhabi’s status as a hub for regional aviation and aerospace, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to deliver a world-class experience,” said Abdul Majeed Khouri, acting CEO at Abu Dhabi Airports.
Total traffic for the first six months of 2016 reached 11,848,359 passengers, representing a 6.6% increase from the 11,111,577 in the first six months of 2015.
Services to Mumbai (still referred to as Bombay by many in Abu Dhabi) have seen a significant rise in traffic, mainly due to an increase in capacity from flag-carrier Etihad. The airline added A380s to the Indian city’s service earlier in May.
“January and March have been the busiest period for Abu Dhabi International Airport in the first half of the year, with passenger traffic crossing two million in both of these months,” Khouri added.
Figures for August 2016 showed a similar growth curve, with 2.3 million passengers, marking an increase of 2.3% compared to August 2015.
Traffic to the UK and Saudi Arabia also rose by a considerable margin, while services to and from Egypt saw a rise of 26.6% since the start of the year after Etihad’s introduction of thrice-daily flights, and EgyptAir’s increased service of 13 flights per week.
The airport’s continued capacity enhancement programme (CEP) and the Midfield Terminal are designed to accommodate growth in both passenger and aircraft traffic. In order to accommodate the increase before the MTB becomes operational, the multi-billion Dirham CEP was implemented and is already well under way. This programme focuses on the existing infrastructure at AUH.
The airport currently serves more than 100 destinations in 56 countries. In excess of 23 million passengers used the airport in 2015 and more than 40 million are expected per year within the next decade, according to the airport authorities.
“Over the summer season  we altered the layout of the entrance to terminal 1 in order to ease passenger flow into the airport,” said Khouri. In addition, he stated that with the implementation of a concept known as “smart travel” AUH managed to increase its passenger processing by 70%.
The airport’s smart travel system was inaugurated earlier this year. Khouri explained: “The system consists of self-check-in and baggage drop facilities, automated passport control gates equipped with biometric verification functions and facial recognition technology, and smart boarding gates, allowing passengers to check-in and move through immigration and security, interacting only with innovative technology.”
In the meantime, Etihad is pushing forward with plans to expand its footprint from its home base. Last month (October), the carrier upgraded services to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia from a single-aisle Airbus A321 aircraft to a Boeing 787 due to strong demand. The daily 787 service now compliments an additional 777 daily rotation.
Kevin Knight, Etihad’s chief strategy and planning officer, said the 787 was playing a key role in the fleet expansion strategy. “We are delighted that Riyadh has joined our 787 cities, giving guests a different experience to and from Abu Dhabi, and offering convenient connections to destinations across our diverse worldwide network.
“The aircraft also provides significantly more cargo capacity to facilitate the movement of a greater number of goods to and from the Saudi capital. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a very important market for Etihad Airways, supporting our global expansion since the launch of services 13 years ago. Our commitment to the Saudi market has grown since we began flying to Riyadh in 2004, steadily increasing our presence to the current 63 flights each week to and from four Saudi cities.”
Also last month, new daily services were launched to Venice, Italy. Together with Alitalia, its codeshare and equity partner, Etihad Airways will offer 35 weekly flights in and out of Italy, including double daily services to Rome and Milan.
In February next year Etihad will add three weekly flights between Abu Dhabi and Sydney, Australia to operate a double-daily schedule on the route. This enhancement to the schedule comes with the move by strategic partner, Virgin Australia, to shift its Australia to Abu Dhabi operation from Sydney to Perth from June 9 2017.
In preparation for the added passenger numbers, several new facilities were expanded at AUH, which Khouri believes has already significantly improved the speed, efficiency and enjoyment with which passengers move through the airport, as well as enabling more aircraft to depart.
Some of the added features include the installation of 350 metres of new walkways directly linking the passenger arrival gates to the immigration halls and transfer screening facilities; the opening of nine new code E aircraft stands to accommodate the increasing number of large aircraft at the airport; and the introduction of 16 state-of-the-art X-ray screening machines capable of processing 2,000 passengers an hour, enabling transfer passengers arriving at terminal 1 to proceed directly to terminal 3 without the need for further screening.
AUH has also become the first airport in the region to be awarded ISO 22301 certification –the internationally recognised benchmark of good practice in business continuity management, reflecting a company-wide commitment to holistic planning for airport operations.
“In accounting for contingency planning, crisis recovery, and ways to cope with several other forms of disruption across an organisation, the business continuity management team at Abu Dhabi Airports has exceeded expectations in its mission to deliver a world-class experience for passengers, operators, and staff,” Khouri said.
In essence, ISO 22301 certification assures all AUH stakeholders that the airport operates with the highest standards, utilising best practice in planning and execution.
Dealing with an increase in passengers also requires investment in new passenger luggage screening systems. In August, Abu Dhabi Airports installed a new automated tray return system (ATRS) to speed up the process of hand luggage screening at terminal 3.
The airport operator said the new system allowed for the processing of bags more than four times faster than conventional screening lanes, reducing wait times and congestion, and providing a smoother travel experience for passengers.
Unlike the conventional system that allows only one passenger at a time to load their belongings into the tray, the ATRS provides four stations at which travellers can simultaneously prepare their bags for screening.
The ATRS also has two buffer stations, seven redress stations for cleared trays, four reject stations for suspicious trays, and two search stations. According to Abu Dhabi Airports, the system operates with what is called a ‘Hi-Scan 7555 atix’ machine and is equipped with two operator workstations allocated remotely in an imaging room, through which the live images can be analysed separately.
Any trays containing suspect belongings can be diverted to the search area for further investigation, away from the cleared lane.
The crowning moment will, of course, be the MTB when it opens in December 2017. The structure is expected to be one of the largest single buildings in Abu Dhabi, and one of the region’s most architecturally impressive.
Khouri said the 700,000sqm landmark would be visible from more than 1.5km away and, with sustainability in mind: “The form, shape, materials used and sophisticated energy and water monitoring systems, have all contributed to the terminal building receiving a 3 pearl design rating from the Estidama Pearl Building Rating System (PBRS).”
Khouri reported that, in June 2016, the final de-propping of the last arch in the roof of the MTB was completed, which means the structure is now completely self-supporting. “Over the next few months we will begin building the stand-alone retail units in the duty free area of the building,” he said.
In addition, 39 of the 106 passenger boarding bridges have been installed and the exterior enveloping and glass glazing of the new terminal looks like it is quickly advancing.