Passenger traffic at Abu Dhabi International Airport nearly quadrupled during the second quarter of 2022 amid a resurgence in demand and the easing of travel restrictions in key markets around the world.
The airport handled 3.6 million passengers in the three months to the end of June, an almost fivefold increase from the same quarter last year, Francois Bourienne, chief commercial officer at Abu Dhabi Airports, said in an exclusive interview with The National.
This represents 68 per cent of pre-coronavirus passenger volumes.
In the first six months of 2022, passenger traffic jumped fivefold to 6.3 million across the emirate's five airports, with 6.2 million of these passing through Abu Dhabi International Airport alone.
Abu Dhabi Airports owns and operates Abu Dhabi International Airport, Al Ain International Airport, Al Bateen Executive Airport, Delma Island Airport and Sir Bani Yas Island Airport.
The growth is largely driven by reduced requirements for Covid-19 testing, the reopening of key markets such as the UK, Saudi Arabia and India, as well as a faster-than-expected recovery in business travel, Mr Bourienne said.
Contributing to growth have been the wider options for travel destinations, as well as travellers who feel safe once more in boarding flights and have more disposable income to travel, chief operations officer Frank McCrorie said in the joint interview.
The airport operator now expects the Gulf hub to handle at least 13 million passengers in 2022, up from an earlier projection in February of 10.7 million, Mr Bourienne said.
“We [expect] to be back to pre-pandemic levels no later than 2024, but it could be earlier if the current pace of recovery maintains,” he said.
Mr Bourienne attributed the higher annual forecast to “very strong” forward bookings at airlines, along with the expansion of home carriers Wizz Air Abu Dhabi and Air Arabia Abu Dhabi.
Foreign airlines are also either resuming services to Abu Dhabi after the pandemic or starting new flights to the UAE capital, while Etihad Airways is adding capacity to some routes to meet higher demand.
“July and August are always a peak but the momentum will remain until the end of the year and into 2023,” Mr Bourienne said.
Abu Dhabi Airports is in talks with three or four airlines based in the GCC and the Indian subcontinent to start operations in the emirate, with the aim of adding these new customers this year or in early 2023, he said.
By the end of the second quarter, Abu Dhabi International Airport, the home base of Etihad Airways, was connected to 104 scheduled passenger destinations served by 22 airlines, up from 74 destinations operated by 19 airlines in the same period in the previous year.
Mr McCrorie said the airport had hired 600 employees so far this year — including for check-in, boarding and baggage-handling — to handle the surge in passenger numbers.
It is currently recruiting an additional 300 workers who will join “as quickly as we can get them”, he said.
“The impending demand for us is the winter schedule, which will kick in at the end of October," said Mr McCrorie.
“So, currently we are reviewing slot requests and approving what we are confident we can approve, based on physical capacity constraints and human constraints.
“[When] everybody has teams in place, suitably trained, then we have more confidence.”
The hub will not compromise on capacity and sacrifice customer service, he said.
“What we are trying to do is achieve a balance: don't be too greedy on traffic and passenger numbers,” Mr McCrorie said.
“We make sure passenger service is key to everything we do. It has to be right.”
The preparations come amid flight cancellations or delays and long queues at major airports in Europe that are struggling with staff shortages and a faster-than-expected rebound in travel after the pandemic.
Abu Dhabi International Airport expects to register “substantial business” when the Fifa World Cup begins in Qatar in November, although the exact numbers will be clearer once the flight schedules are finalised, Mr McCrorie said.
The football tournament will attract millions of fans, with shuttle flights between Doha and Abu Dhabi planned as some spectators stay in the UAE and travel to Qatar for matches because of constrained hotel supply in Qatar.
Midfield terminal in 'final phases'
Meanwhile, the new Dh10.8 billion ($2.94bn) Midfield Terminal Building (MTB) at Abu Dhabi International Airport is taking shape.
“The project is where we want it to be. It is on programme. There is a whole load of activity taking place, so it is really in its final phases. We are finishing trialling it and staff have to be familiar with it,” Mr McCrorie said.
The terminal will not be opened this year, according to Mr McCrorie.
“We will open it when we think it is the right time to open it and I must stress that — it is not necessarily about when it will be ready for opening,” he said, declining to provide a date.
“The biggest factor for us is reputation. Everybody has been waiting for this facility to open, so we want to make sure that we do so in a timely manner and in the correct fashion.”
The right time will depend on travel demand, measures to invest in the latest technology, the addition of new service initiatives, the construction schedule, operational readiness, staff familiarisation, training, trialling, as well as initiatives to guarantee success on every transition and integration of systems, he said.
“This has to be a fantastic facility,” Mr McCrorie said. “If you take the seamless use of biometrics, they didn't exist when the building was designed, so what's the right thing to do? Is it just to ignore the opportunity or is to say, 'we want to invest further in that'."
“Abu Dhabi demands a very high standard, and rightly so,” he said.
Asked about the project's completion rate, Mr McCrorie said that there were several packages at different stages, with land-side work such as roads network at 97 per cent completed.
“The golden rule of airport opening is that you never commit to a date until you are certain you are going to hit that date,” Mr McCrorie said.
“I would not recommend we commit until we are 100 per cent certain that we are setting ourselves up for success.”
The operator will publicly announce the opening date once the building is ready and when the conditions are right, he said.
“I am 100 per cent comfortable that both elements of the construction programme and operational readiness are where they should be and where we expect them to be at this stage,” Mr McCrorie said.
“If that comfort grows further, then we will be in a position to be more comfortable in the success and we will be in a position to be a bit more transparent about specific timelines and dates.”