AEROSPACE TRANSFORMATION

Abu Dhabi 2020 | TRANSPORT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Bryan Thompson, CEO of Abu Dhabi Airports, on the anticipated opening of Abu Dhabi's Midfield Terminal, leveraging international hub airport status to attract more visitors, and the importance developing a sustainable aviation sector.

What will be the economic impact and significance of the opening of Abu Dhabi's Midfield Terminal?

The opening of the Midfield Terminal will add capacity to the market and allow for the continued economic growth of the aviation sector. It has allowed us to broaden our commercial offerings in terms of concessions, retail propositions, duty free, specialty retail, and food and beverage. If we compare the current economic benefits from the existing terminal to the future predicted benefits of the new terminal, we will significantly increase our annual revenues from non-aeronautical revenue due to the increase in available space. Furthermore, the terminal will serve as a strategic asset which allows us to further advance the aviation industry within Abu Dhabi.

How do you assess the development of the airport within the context of Abu Dhabi's efforts to attract more tourists?

Abu Dhabi Airports works in close collaboration with the major stakeholders, including the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT) and Etihad Airways, to promote Abu Dhabi as a visitor destination. Historically, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been excellent transit hubs; however, we want passengers to experience the varied cultural and tourist offerings of Abu Dhabi. While the hub activities will remain fundamental to our operations, as will our close relationship with Etihad and its hub activities, we seek to develop this further. Singapore did this with Changi Airport around 20 years ago, leveraging on its status as an international hub and marketing the city as part of that transit, giving visitors the ability to experience Singapore for a few days before recommencing their journeys. Abu Dhabi has plenty of tourist attractions as well as a rich events calendar which includes F1. We play a crucial role in transport infrastructure in terms of bringing people into the UAE, and we will continue to work with the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT) on this agenda to ensure the UAE is well represented. We recently set up a sector committee that looks more long term at the aviation sector and the strategy.

What is your perspective on ultra-long-haul flights disrupting the hub network?

Abu Dhabi is well located geographically in terms of its proximity to the majority of the global population. Geopolitically, this is a sound region, and the UAE is ranked as the safest country in the world for visitors and residents; we are fortunate in many ways. Ultra-long-haul in terms of network economics and the support for such long flights does not disrupt hubs at the moment, though this remains to be seen in the long term. The Midfield Terminal will boast the best facilities in the world when it opens, and our role is to make it as efficient and attractive as possible by giving passengers the opportunity to relax and rejuvenate before continuing on their journeys. There will always be a role for hubs just by the virtue of network economics, as not all routes are busy enough to justify long-distance flights. In those routes where we are ideally positioned to support, our job is to make it an experience that passengers want to partake in.

Whose job is to make it an experience that passengers want to partake in? Is there room in Abu Dhabi for the establishment of a low-cost airline?

Part of our goal in terms of developing the aviation sector within Abu Dhabi involves how we optimize the use of our assets, in particular with the new terminal. We facilitate the best operations for airlines, with Etihad as our resident hub carrier. Fly Dubai was traditionally a low-cost carrier, though it is now more of a hybrid. Airlines adjust to the market conditions, and the routes served are made as attractive as possible to suit the preferences of customers, so cost structures and fares have become distinctly different. Traditional full-service carriers operate with low fares. The market is interesting, and there is room for traditional low cost, low fare, and full fare, full service, though the market really does adapt to what customers want.

How have you been involved in building capacity and diversity to develop the next generation of aviation professionals?

Abu Dhabi is proud to have the Gulf Centre For Aviation Studies, which offers a wide range of courses from traditional aviation study type courses to IATA and ACI all the way to management courses. We intend to continue to build on that in terms of the offerings. Preparing to operate the new Midfield Terminal is a phenomenal challenge; we not only have to train staff on the new facility but also on a new way of delivering customer satisfaction. The diversity of our workforce continues to be of prime importance because of the people we serve. However, we are also focused on building an Emirati workforce that is capable and qualified to deliver the services. We have specific diversity targets in terms of recruitment. We have a balanced workforce in terms of gender, and our primary focus at the moment is on competence. We look internally to make sure we can deliver all the training and courses to enable this.

With air travel set to rise, how can this growth happen as sustainably as possible?

Sustainability is now a core focus of the Emirates and across the world. The Midfield Terminal has specific design criteria to limit its impact on the environment and was rated Pearl 2. We have also started to implement a solar farm on the car park to generate power. Additionally, we use treated effluent in our landscaping to conserve water. Looking more broadly at industry, the aircraft today versus aircraft 10 years ago are far more efficient not only in terms of fuel usage, but also in CO2 emissions. The industry is working hard on this issue. From an organization perspective, we want to make sure we look at our generational impact and how we create a sustainable business from a financial perspective and a sustainable workforce that can regenerate itself, learn, and create activity for many years to come within the UAE, particularly for Emirati nationals. How can we create an organization that truly concentrates on sustainability? We need a master plan to ensure the airport knows where it will be in 100 years' time.