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Abu Dhabi’s new terminal will meet explosive 50 million demand in passenger numbers

written by John Walton | December 18, 2014
Construction is well advanced on what will be Abu Dhabi’s biggest building.

When Abu Dhabi International Airport’s new midfield terminal building opens in the third quarter of 2017, it will add two hundred per cent extra capacity to the airport’s current limits.

The new terminal will serve as the home Etihad Airways, which will relocate to its 65 gates along with most of its partners – likely to include Virgin Australia and the rest of the Etihad Airways Partners mini-alliance. 

“Our primary business,” the  airport’s vice president for capital projects, Sulaiman al Siksek, tells Australian Aviation, “is driven from Etihad and their partners.”

Built, as the name would suggest, in the middle of the airport’s two current runways, the terminal’s four sweeping piers radiate out from the wavy roof of the central core in two pairs of non-symmetrical piers, with each pair separate in terms of security screening and services. 

It will be the largest building in the entire emirate of Abu Dhabi, and its skeleton is already a landmark on the airport skyline, with external glass panels now being installed under the watchful eyes of its sail-like air traffic control tower, completed in 2011 in expectation of the midfield terminal building’s arrival.

“We’ve been experiencing some serious passenger growth in Abu Dhabi, and in the Emirates in general,” al Siksek, says“We’re looking at an almost 20 per cent year on year increase in passenger volume. This is why our initial thoughts, a long way back, once we’d built the midfield terminal building, were to move all airlines into the new building and shut down the current operations on the south side of the airport. Based on the new forecasts, the south side will continue operating, and there will be a tunnel underneath the south runway to serve for future connectivity between the south side and the midfield terminal building.”

The new terminal’s distinctive X shape.

Australian Aviation asked al Siksek the reasoning behind the roughly X-shaped building, compared with the more widely used “toastrack” design used internationally (think Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson or London Heathrow Terminal 5), where a central terminal area is joined by an underground shuttle to numerous — and easily extendable — satellite gate buildings.

“It was based on a design competition,” al Siksek explains. “The X shape is to maximise the number of aircraft parked. Piers 1 and 4 [which face the arrival roadway] are ‘single-loaded’ piers, while on the eastern end, Piers 2 and 3 are double-loaded piers, so you have the aircraft parked on both sides. All four piers will be feeding into the central processor, which is where everything happens. The baggage system, duty free and the main retail, food and beverage outlets will all be in the central processor, but there are also some other facilities on the piers themselves.”

The plan for transit passengers is to return from the piers — which al Siksek claims are a 15 minute walk without moving walkways, the only plans for internal mobility within the terminal — to the central core, clear transit security, wait in the central lounge or food/retail complex and then proceed back along the departure piers for boarding.

It’s an ambitious move for an airport that is aiming for a 45-minute minimum connection time at the IATA Level of Service A standards for space and flow, which require “excellent service, free flow, direct routes, no delay, excellent level of comfort”.

The new terminal is the size of Sydney or the new Doha airports

Getting to grips with the size of the building, particularly given the explosive passenger growth in the Gulf, requires two sets of comparisons: gates and passenger numbers.

In terms of size, the midfield terminal has the same number of contact gates — 65 — as are planned for the entire new Doha airport.

By passenger numbers, the new terminal will host 30 million passengers annually, of which al Siksek, estimates 80 per cent will be transit passengers, up from approximately 70 per cent currently.

30 million passengers is slightly smaller than the current total capacity at Sydney, and less than half the 66 million passengers passing through Dubai last year. Dubai’s A380-capable Concourse A alone can take 15 million.

Nearby, Qatar’s new Hamad International Airport in Doha already has a 30 million passenger capacity, and will rise to 50 million once its final phase is complete after 2015. 

But Abu Dhabi — and, indeed, the rest of the world — are dwarfed by plans for Dubai’s new airport, Al Maktoum, which is expected to host between 160 and 260 million passengers.

Abu Dhabi Airport AUH Midfield Terminal Building --JW IMG_3957
The new terminal will have 65 gates. (John Walton)
Future plans span a satellite building, fourth terminal and two more runways

Even before the new midfield terminal is completed, the airport is already deep in discussions on the next steps. “We’re already in plans for the future satellite to determine the size and how many gates we’ll be serving with this future satellite,” al Siksek says. “I’m almost certain we’ll go into construction for it as we’re completing the midfield terminal.”

“The layout is still in the planning stage. We’re gathering all the stakeholder requirements. The intent is to use additional gatehouses, because that’s one of the first things we’ll probably run out of,” al Siksek expects. “Also, we’ll be connecting the baggage system from the midfield terminal building to the satellite, so we have that functionality. The satellite building will also have its retail, food and beverage facilities as well. And there you have the automated people mover, which is a train to connect the midfield terminal passengers to the satellite.”

Quoting 2021-2022 as the year for the first satellite terminal to come into play, the airport is considering whether to build another terminal rather than a second satellite.

“Right now we’re talking about the first satellite, but obviously the plan is: how much can we keep on using the midfield terminal building, because it will still be processing most of the baggage systems. It will also be where you process the departing and arriving passengers. The main use of the satellite is really for transfer, which is the most traffic we have,” says al Siksek. “But that’s what we’re looking at: the sizing of the future satellite and whether there is another satellite really depends on the ratio of transfer passengers versus originating and arriving passengers.”

“We’re also looking into a third and fourth runway,” al Siksek confirms.

By that stage, the Abu Dhabi government will be most of the way through its Vision 2030 Urban Structure Framework Plan, and the previously quiet city and emirate will be a very different place — as will its airport.

Abu Dhabi Airport AUH Midfield Terminal Building --JW IMG_3949
The sail-like ATC tower. (John Walton)

Comment (1)

  • Darren


    It seems that the “more money than sense” critics are coming under serious pressure from the “build it and they will come” proponents. Perhaps “expand it and they will keep coming” should be added.

    Without wishing to sound like the aforementioned critics, one would have to assume that at some point the aviation market in the Gulf will reach some degree of maturity.

    Also, if and when Iran assumes a more normalised role within the global economy, the Gulf states might eventually come under some serious competitive pressure (although there would appear to be no immediate cause for concern).

    One thing seems for sure; Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi have managed an impressive head-start that will be difficult to replicate for the likes of Iran, India or elsewhere anytime soon.

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