By Shane McGinley
As Etihad Airways continues its mission to dominate the skies, Abu Dhabi Airports Company CEO Tony Douglas is the man tasked with managing the mega infrastructure on the ground to make sure it all runs smoothly
Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways is rarely out of the headlines these days as it juggles deals in Europe, Australia and India and launches routes to the four corners of the globe. The UAE flag-carrier earlier this year announced a third consecutive year of profit, with net profit surging 48 percent to $62m in 2013. Passenger numbers rose 12 percent to 11.5 million and even in the first quarter of this year 14 percent more passengers travelled with the carrier, more than double the 5.8 percent global growth rate predicted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for 2014.
As a result, Etihad’s Abu Dhabi airport hub is also thriving, with 15 percent more passengers moving through the facility in the first three months of the year.
The man tasked with keeping up with James Hogan’s Etihad global masterplan and making it a reality on the ground is Tony Douglas, the CEO of Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC). “Our forecast going forward with Etihad is the greatest gift you could ever dream of,” Douglas says enthusiastically.
While Etihad looks to bring Abu Dhabi to the world, Douglas is hard at work making sure Abu Dhabi Airports’ $3bn Midfield Terminal Building (MTB) is kept on target and ready to open at 7am on 17 July 2017. In fact the Abu Dhabi carrier’s continued growth means that he constantly has to review his plans to keep pace.
When the MTB was initially conceived, it was designed so that all 44-plus airlines would be able to operate from it, but Douglas says Etihad’s rapid growth means that the current south-side Terminal One and Terminal Three will still be operational when the MTB opens in 2017.
“Etihad has grown by about 30 percent in the last two years in terms of its forecasts and that is 30 percent of a reasonably sized number. At the Dubai Airshow, as well as Emirates and Qatar Airways, it placed the largest civil aviation order in memory.
“I would say therefore that when this incredible terminal opens that it will not be the end of the development and we will have to move very quickly on to the next phase to keep pace with Etihad. All the numbers that we observe, the forecasts for growth, and the evidence from the industry in this region support that,” he adds, reporting that they have already “significantly” increased their capacity plans at MTB to cater to this ongoing, fast-paced growth.
MTB is the jewel in Abu Dhabi Airports’ crown and when complete, at 700,000 sq m, it will be the largest single building in Abu Dhabi and is expected to be able to cater to up to 30 million passengers a year. To put that into perspective, Abu Dhabi International is likely to operate around 18 million passengers this year, based on the 4.5 million carried in the first quarter and which is up significantly on the 5.2 million carried in the same period in 2006.
The main construction work is being carried out as part of a joint venture between consisting of Arabtec, Consolidated
Contractors Company (CCC) and TAV. In April 2013, Larsen & Toubro (L&T) were awarded the AED943m ($257m) contract to carry out infrastructure work at the MTB and in February this year construction reached a major milestone when the first steel arch was completed, marking the launch of the roof structure phase.
“The achievement, in spite of its architectural complexity, is being delivered 20 days ahead of schedule which again confirms that the MTB will be delivered on time and on budget,” Douglas said at the time.
The first arch that has been erected is one of the 18 arches to make up the steel primary structure for the MTB roof. By the end of 2014, all 18 arches will be completed and assembled.
The move above the ground is all part of the construction story for 2014 and as Douglas walks us around the massive site, he is keen to display the project’s epic proportions and scale.
“2013 was basically the year of the substructure as there is an awful lot below the ground. The front section was two levels below the ground... An aircraft carrier or the biggest container ship in the world you could fit in that plant room below the ground and that is just a fraction of it. Of course, it’s all because it contains the world’s biggest baggage-handling system.
“Look at the scale of what is going on here,” he says with excitement. “To give you a sense of this one, if you took the air handling ducts, that all the fresh air goes through, and put all the ducts end-to-end it would probably go from here to Doha. So everything here is mega size.
“2014 is the year of the superstructure so you can see pretty much all the focus is now above ground activity and the piers at both sides. The roof structure is going on the piers and the arch structure is going on at the central processor. The balance of this year is going to be about the roof and there is a lot of mechanical and electrical equipping that goes into it.
“In 2015, it is the year of finishing the roof and facade and truly completing it from the outside. A lot is then inside, which will be the balance of the electrical and mechanical and the fitting. Then you get into what makes this an airport as opposed to a big building as 2015 into 2016 is all about systems. Then, in 2017, we will open.
On the day that we are surveying the site, over in Doha Qatar is unveiling its much-delayed Hamad International Airport. We ask Douglas why he is setting such a strict opening date and time as legendary German efficiency hasn’t been able to deliver Berlin airport on time and, even with all its money and political will, Qatar couldn’t deliver Hamad International on time?
“No question about it,” he says of achieving the opening in 2017, rejecting the idea that setting such a public target is a recipe for a downfall. “Without a set date you don’t get clarity and without
clarity you don’t get alignment and without alignment you don’t get megaprojects to succeed.
“Many projects of this nature are so complex that if you don’t have a definition of what you are going to achieve and by when then you find you move into ‘it’ll get taken care of in the future’. So that’s the logic of an absolute definition.”
The last time we met Douglas for a sit-down interview he was working as CEO of Abu Dhabi Ports Company and on delivery of another major Abu Dhabi project, the Khalifa Port and Industrial Zone (KPIZ), which came in on schedule and below budget. However, he has a long airport pedigree to his CV as he was previously CEO of Heathrow Airport in the UK, and was managing director of delivery of the Terminal 5 build programme.
When managing such mega projects, he believes breaking it down into bite-sized manageable chunks is the only way forward: “On the port, I divided it down in 100-day sprints; here it is 200-day sprints. We have a lot more definition on the absolute detail that everybody has to achieve in a relatively short period of time and that is how we drive the continuity.”
With around 80 percent of Etihad’s transit passengers transferring onto another flight, Douglas points out that a lot of work was put into installing the most sophisticated baggage handling system at the MTB.
“There is the need to have amazing efficiency in the connection times. The connection time is disproportionately a baggage rather than passenger issue as we can figure it out for ourselves most of the time. The bag, of course, requires a lot of assistance so this has the world’s most advanced baggage handling.
“It is a tote-based system. While there are 26km of conveyor belts, each of the bags goes on a tray, called a tote. Each tote has a radio frequency on it, so it knows exactly where the tray is in the system and because of the bag tag we know who owns it and the flight linked to the tickets and passport.
“You have the connection between the bag tag and tote. If someone arrives from Sydney in the morning, but is not transferring to Munich for four hours, instead of your bag just going around on the world’s biggest and most convoluted [baggage system] it knows that, because of your ticket, the tote goes to an internal warehouse and it parks your bag in there.
“When it is two hours before the flight, your bag goes into the regular system and gets ready to go into the container to go into the aircraft to go to Munich. So this is serious sophistication. It is very intelligent.”
When you look at the aviation accomplishments of the UAE and developments and expansion taking place at the two airports in neighbouring Dubai, I put it to Douglas that it surely makes sense to merge the two operations - rather than have them working in parallel - and try and complement their dual ambitions.
“I don’t believe so because when you look at the phenomenal growth of Dubai it is driven by Emirates,” Douglas says. “If you look at the phenomenal growth at Abu Dhabi Airport it is driven by Etihad. As you know, Etihad doesn’t fly into Dubai and Emirates doesn’t fly into Abu Dhabi, so in terms of the airport infrastructure that is a function of the airlines’ growth strategies. I guess what I am saying is, unless that were to change, what you see on the ground is unlikely to change either.”
That said, Douglas has enough to worry about in Abu Dhabi as the company operates not just Abu Dhabi International and the MTB, but also four smaller regional airport facilities, which are all eager for expansion and development attention.
“Al Ain International Airport is a very important airport for us, we have an incredible runway. The terminal building we are looking to do a fundamental facelift on the external and internal fit-out. We are working through different design options and looking at key stakeholders and realistically that is something you will see play out in the near future.”
At Al Bateen Executive Airport, which Douglas describes as the only dedicated executive jet facility in the Middle East, work is also being planned. “We have put in quite of bit of investment into enhancing the facilities for the VVIP end of the travel market... Between now and the end of the next Airshow you will see a number of interesting changes in our VVIP terminal facilities and ancillary services and we have seen a big uptake in the executive jet usage for Al Bateen.”
At the two remaining airports – Delma Island Airport and Sir Bani Yas Island Airport – Douglas says he is also looking at improvements in order to help expand the tourist potential of the islands.
Moving back to his main focus, the MTB, Douglas is determined that this will be an impressive building of epic proportions which will be more than just the usual grey airport facility.
“This is the gateway to the capital city of the UAE so it really important that the first impression stands for the symbolic gateway experience and something you wouldn’t get anywhere else. To give you the perspective, you could fit the Emirates Palace dome under the roof, so it gives you a sense of it.
“People go into Emirates Palace for the first time and it feels big enough the first time but I watch them when they get to the dome area and they go underneath it and go ‘wow’ and ‘it’s enormous’, so you have an element of that.
“The imagery is iconic. Most airports tend to be rectangular grey boxes and have a relatively formulaic approach so you could be in North America, Asia or anywhere and that big grey box experience is pretty consistent and the imagery is like what you have before.”
Douglas wants the MTB to be more than this and he hopes that in the future when people are listing iconic architecturally impressive structures they will think of Paris’ Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House and Abu Dhabi’s airport building. Come 7am on 17 July 2017, here’s hoping this ambitious project will be a reality.