No rush with Abu Dhabi’s Midfield terminal opening, says CEO

Despite hints at another possible delay in the opening of its $3 billion airport, the commencement of operational tests at Abu Dhabi’s new airport is providing guidance about what the emirate is planning for its aviation future to target.

Speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi yesterday, Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC) CEO Bryan Thompson said the $3 billion Midfield terminal building (MTB) would be central to the UAE capital’s plans to boost the number of visitors to Abu Dhabi, as opposed to attracting those who simply want to transit through the airport.

Thompson said ADAC expects the number of travellers into its airports to grow by roughly 20% by 2021, or 1.4 million passengers over the current 7.7 million in point to point traffic through the emirate’s airports.

“We have seen that shift in terms of an increase in origin and destination traffic, which is good for Abu Dhabi. It creates more visitors that stay in the city itself. It’s not a huge shift but we have seen an increase in passengers starting to spend more time here,” he said.

However, with forecasts for air traffic into Abu Dhabi remaining flat, unveiling a finished airport building that would add capacity when demand wouldn’t support it means ADAC is under no pressure to finish MTB’s construction as soon as possible.

If anything, Thompson wants to make sure “we do this right.”

“We don’t want to let Abu Dhabi down when we open the Midfield. We want to be 100% ready, for ourselves and the airline to present Abu Dhabi in the best light. It’s not just the airport’s reputation that’s at stake, we need to do this right,” he said.

Under wraps

Being built at a capacity of 45 million passengers, MTB has faced numerous delays in its construction. It was earlier expected to be completed in 2017, but despite being 86% complete according to ADAC at the time, its opening was delayed to the fourth quarter of 2019.

Thompson stopped short of committing to whether MTB would indeed be ready by then, saying instead that progress was “on plan.”

“We are working towards a date to have that operational but for now we are keeping that under wraps,” he said, adding that “there is no capacity drive to move to MTB at the moment. In the south side, we have an airport that’s operating, it has enough capacity to operate.”

While numbers for 2018 are still unavailable, ADAC expects traffic in 2019 to remain in line with what it was in 2018, without gaining or losing passengers.

Thompson’s comments reflected a desire to be patient about Etihad Airways’ recovery and make sure everything was ready for when the airline’s “structural reset” resulted in stability.

“The market has been slightly different for the past two years because of the changes predominantly the home carriers both Etihad and its partner airlines have gone through a time where they have to structurally reset. So our growth as an industry within Abu Dhabi has been fairly challenged,” he said.

Thompson said he didn’t expect traffic growth to result “in the next 12 months” but added that traffic would “see a fairly straight line. We don’t see us losing traffic.”

After losing $3.5 billion in two years, Etihad is in the midst of a turnaround strategy that is expected to take another two years to show results.

Its core flight operations remain viable, according to earlier statements by the carrier. Under CEO Tony Douglas, who took over from James Hogan in December 2017, the airline has restructured its existing fleet and future orders, jettisoned stakes in assets that proved poor investments, including carriers such as Alitalia and Airberlin, and also initiated an ancilliary strategy rethink.

Abu Dhabi’s plan, according to Thompson, was about driving more traffic to the emirate once Etihad Airways was able to chart an upward growth trajectory.

He cited an increase in MICE events, medical tourism opportunities and cultural strides being taken including the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and its oldest building, the Qasr Al Hosn fort museum, as examples of ways the emirate would look to attract travellers.

“Once the airline has reset itself and its new strategy has come into place with the new fleet, Abu Dhabi will return to growth,” he said.

By the time that happened, ADAC would be positioned for “rapid growth”, he said.

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