Abu Dhabi airport plans expansion as Etihad Airways charts growth to 2030

Airport operator plans to attract extra airlines, particularly from Asia, to bring in more tourists and corporate travellers

The new Terminal A has 163 shops and restaurants. Photo: Abu Dhabi Airports
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Abu Dhabi airport's Terminal A plans to attract more airlines to start flights to the UAE capital and aims to “future-proof” operations by increasing its capacity to 65 million passengers in 10 years, up from 45 million currently.

A total of 28 airlines operate from Terminal A, four more than the older terminal, with the addition of flights by Air France, Russian state airline Aeroflot, low-cost company Pobeda and Czech airline Smartwings.

“We are trying to leverage a lot on the government-to-government relations at the moment. I would say Asia and China are definitely a target,” Elena Sorlini, managing director and interim chief executive of Abu Dhabi Airports, told The National in an interview on Monday.

“We also have the US pre-clearance facility, which is an asset as there are only 15 airports in the world that have them, and we definitely want to try to bank on that. These are the ongoing discussions.

“The target is to enhance the connectivity of Abu Dhabi and to unlock its potential from a tourist, trade and air cargo perspective, so we are putting some science in terms of the markets we want to target.”

Abu Dhabi International Airport opened its long-anticipated new terminal building to the public on November 1. It is set to bolster Abu Dhabi's position as a global business and tourism hub.

Future expansion

State-run operator Abu Dhabi Airports is already preparing for continued growth in air travel demand with plans to increase Terminal A's passenger capacity over the next decade.

In the second phase of expansion, capacity will grow to 65 million passengers, up from 45 million currently, in line with home carrier Etihad Airways' plans to triple the number of passengers to 33 million and double its fleet to 150 planes by 2030.

“That will be done in a modular way, so you deploy capacity when needed, and we are starting to look at that because we are at a stage where we've beaten our expectations, so we need to be ready for the next step,” Ms Sorlini said.

“The time frame needs to be activated within the next 10 years with Etihad's vision for 2030 to reach 33 million passengers, so you can get the implications in terms of this place starting to become a bit constrained.”

Sheikh Khaled bin Mohamed tours Abu Dhabi Airport Terminal A ahead of opening

Sheikh Khaled bin Mohamed tours Abu Dhabi Airport Terminal A ahead of opening

In 2023, Terminal A is projected to handle 22 million passengers, up from 21.9 million in 2019, Ms Sorlini told a press briefing at the airport on Monday.

In the year through to October, the airport recorded a 50 per cent increase in passenger traffic, compared to the same 10-month period of 2022, she said.

In the winter season, 410 aircraft movements per day are expected, up 21 per cent from the 340 during the summer this year in the old terminal, according to airport data.

“We have four new carriers and we have Etihad Airways that is growing,” Ms Sorlini said, highlighting the growth of UAE carriers Wizz Air Abu Dhabi and Air Arabia Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi Airports projects “double-digit” growth in passenger traffic in 2024, she said.

To meet this growth, the airport is undertaking a “substantial” increase in its workforce through directly hiring more staff and also outsourcing some contracts to third-party companies, according to the executive.

Ms Sorlini said there had been little impact on passenger traffic from macroeconomic and geopolitical headwinds, including inflationary pressures on consumer spending and threats of an economic slowdown in some regions of the world.

"People say a recession is coming but we're not seeing an impact," she said.

The Israel-Gaza war has similarly not had an effect on air travel demand at the Abu Dhabi hub, Ms Sorlini said.

From November 15, all airlines have been operating exclusively from Terminal A.

Asked how Terminal 1 at Abu Dhabi International Airport will be used, Ms Sorlini said various options are being evaluated.

“We need to assess. Definitely we're going to close it for aviation activities and we will develop plans … Terminal 1 still has a bit of soul and heart, despite being old, but it is still really nice and is a sort of heritage for Abu Dhabi so we want to give meaning to it,” she said.

“So we're considering some options with the city.”

Updated: November 28, 2023, 7:49 AM