Interview: James Bennett, CEO, ADAC

CEO has a plan to take Abu Dhabi into the aviation super league.


There is a certain calmness about James Bennett, the CEO of Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC). He comes across as the sort of person who serenely takes things in his stride – whether it be a multi-billion airport development project or juggling the management of five airports at a time. Having taken over the mantle of CEO two years ago, Bennett made his entrance at a time when theUnited Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai and Abu Dhabi, were ramping up their plans to dominate the world’s long-haul market.

Dubai International Airport clearly had a headstart on its neighbour, having surpassed its own ambitious passenger traffic predictions to such an extent that the emirate was forced to announce plans for a second aviation hub, Dubai World Central. But ifAbu DhabiInternationalAirporthad been on the back foot at all, this was all set to change. In an industry where airlines often complain of the lack of government commitment to aviation growth, inAbu Dhabithis commitment comes in buckets from the very highest echelons of the government.

Five years ago, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE and ruler ofAbu Dhabi, revealed a plan for the economic development of the emirate for the next quarter of a century. Since then, the ‘Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030’ has been at the heart ofAbu Dhabi’s development as an aviation hub. A key player in the 2030 plan, Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC) was set up to spearhead the development of the emirate’s airport infrastructure.

“The leadership recognised that connectivity to the global economy is dependent on modes of air transportation – commercial aviation, corporate aviation, cargo and even maintenance services such as MRO,” explains Bennett. “Aviation is a clearly a key component of the [future] success ofAbu Dhabi.”

Whilst much of the world’s aviation industry continues to struggle in challenging economic circumstances, figures from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reveal that regional airports such asAbu Dhabiare thriving.Abu DhabiInternationalAirportcaters to 53 international airlines today, connecting to more than 85 destinations in almost 49 countries.

Under ADAC, the airport has more than doubled passenger numbers during the past six years from 5.3 million in 2006 to more than 12 million last year. IATA’s own director general and CEO, Tony Tyler, has complimented the region for its aviation foresight, stating: “Aviation’s importance as a catalyst for growth is well-understood in the Middle East and particularly in the Gulf region, where airports rise ahead of the demand curve, not behind it.”

But as Bennett knows only too well, the need to rise ahead of the demand curve has never been more important for ADAC than right now. In the first half of 2012, the airport had already handled over seven million passengers, with July and August witnessing the largest volume of passenger traffic in its entire history.

Do some sums and the numbers don’t quite add up. With the airport’s capacity officially only 12 million, it seems that Abu Dhabi International is already running at more than full passenger capacity.

“It is true that we did slightly exceed the design capacity of the facilities last year,” Bennett admits. “This year, we will exceed it even more.” With passenger throughput set to hit 20 million within five years, surely capacxity represents a real challenge for ADAC?

The CEO, however, appears calm and it seemsAbu Dhabihas thought this one through. ADAC is currently hard at work on a full-scale ‘capacity enhancement programme’, which will turn the airport into a slicker, smoother operation – enabling the efficient handling of more passengers than its capacity would otherwise have allowed for. Last year witnessed the completed renovation of the main airport building at Terminal 1. More immigration desks, smoother security processes, more parking, additional bus gates, new technologies – anything and everything that can be done to enhance the capacity of the airport to its utmost potential.

But all these measures are simply a transitory plan to manage passenger capacity as efficiently as possible before the completion of a much bigger and impressive flagship project – the development of the Midfield Terminal Complex, which will push passenger capacity to a whole new level. “The capacity enhancement work is underway as we speak, with several initiatives that should give us the capacity to handle around 20 million passengers through the existing service,” says Bennett. “This will bridge the gap between where we are today and the opening of our Midfield Terminal in 2017.”

Five years’ time may seem to be a long way ahead, but Bennett knows that in the world of airport development it is merely fleeting. Despite the pressure caused byAbu Dhabi’s relentless passenger growth, he is confident that ADAC is well on track for a comfortable completion of the Midfield Terminal on schedule.

“We are in the very early stages of construction, with the contractors on site,” he reports. “All of the underground work for the support of the building has been accomplished already.” Soon, he adds, anyone driving past the site will able to clearly see the work in progress as the construction effort intensifies.

Once complete, the centrepiece of the project, the six-storey Midfield Terminal Building (MTB), will give the airport the ability to handle the 30-47 million passengers forecast for 2030. ADAC can then rest assured that passenger growth will be covered for a very long time into the future. “We are very excited about the Midfield Terminal, which will add a new experience in aviation that I don’t think can be rivalled anywhere else in the world,” enthuses Bennett.

It is clear that seeing the US $2.94 billion project come to fruition has been a real highlight for the CEO. “Getting the Midfield Terminal contract finalised has really been very rewarding for everyone involved in the airport over the years,” he says.

It is not surprising to see why the development ranks so highly with the team. In terms of sheer scale and efficiency, the passenger facilities at the Midfield Terminal are set to far exceed those currently atAbu DhabiInternationalAirport.

The new terminal aims to meet IATA’s ‘A’ level of service, which means the highest level possible of space allocation for passenger processing areas. Check-in facilities will be capable of handling around 8500 passengers per hour, and there will be over 18,000 square metres of duty-free retail. The terminal will also become the swanky new home for national carrier Etihad Airways.

Of course, Bennett fully appreciates the critical role that the meteoric rise ofAbu Dhabi’s flag carrier has played in the airport’s own success. “A major contributor of the growth inAbu Dhabihas been the continued expansion and the aircraft deliveries of Etihad, our home-based airline,” he says. “As the airline continues to expand its network and purchase additional aircraft, this will fuel even more growth.”

With passenger numbers rising alongside the fierce expansion of Etihad’s global network, the carrier has boosted its global standing in the airline world over a mere five year period – moving from 52ndto number six in the coveted Skytrax rankings. Other airports managed by ADAC, such as Al Ain International and Al Bateen Executive Airport, have also continued to show steady growing passenger growth.

Cargo throughput at the main airport, driven largely by Etihad Cargo, has similarly been enjoying healthy growth and Bennett is confident that it will almost certainly emulate passenger growth by outgrowing the capacity available at the airport. August’s reported figures already place cargo traffic at 268,157 tonnes in the first half of 2012. “Our cargo facilities are already running at full capacity and we are currently working on some additional opportunities in the cargo area to expand this,” says Bennett. “But at some point we are undoubtedly going to have to move to a new cargo facility.”

To this end, the airport is developing the East Midfield Cargo Terminal; a new 200-hectare support area that will include a fully automated cargo facility capable of handling two million tonnes of goods each year.

There are also plans on the horizon to turn Abu Dhabi into a true ‘airport city’ by establishing complementary commercial activities on the airport grounds. In a bid to encourage foreign investment in aviation, ‘Free Zones’ are to be set up at all of ADAC’s main airports. “The Free Zones will give aviation companies the opportunity to be registered and licensed as 100% ownership companies to go into business at the airport,” explains Bennett.

When it comes to mega-airport development projects, Bennett comes with years of experience under his belt. As president and CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) in his past life, Bennett was responsible for the multi-million dollar construction and expansion of Dulles Airport. Upon his appointment as CEO of ADAC in 2010, Khalifa Al Mazrouei, chairman of ADAC, expressed his wholehearted confidence in Bennett’s ability to develop ADAC, “into a world class airport company”.

Five years ago, Abu Dhabi would not have been mentioned on the list of global aviation super-hubs. Today, however, there is a real sense that Abu Dhabi International can join the aviation big leagues.

Bennett is not getting carried away, however. Right now, he is focusing on the biggest challenge facing the airport - the very real danger that it could become a victim of its own success and run out of capacity. “We need to move along as quickly as we can on our temporary capacity enhancement programme, to get that interim capacity online to help us bridge where we are today until we open the Midfield terminal,” he says.

“Customers will then enjoy an even better experience when they use Abu Dhabi International Airport. It will position the emirate with enough capacity to expand and become an even greater global hub than it is today.”

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