Coming together at Abu Dhabi Airport, Etihad's Midfield terminal

The four arms of Abu Dhabi Airport’s Midfield Terminal Building (MTB) have now taken skeletal form, and in less than two years, they will be fully sealed off from the searing heat of the desert and made into a gigantic new X shaped structure.

This is an airport development that will inevitably play a large role in the rivalries between Dubai based Emirates, which is the commercial partner of Qantas on what’s left of the kangaroo route, and Abu Dhabi based Etihad Airways, which is a substantial shareholder in Virgin Australia.

Abu Dhabi, with its city centre around 99 kilometres from Dubai will have an airport that has the capacity, as well as the ambition to rival that city’s larger and longer established Middle East hub and it is certain to figure large in the airline services between Australia and Europe and the rising economies of the Gulf region and nearby.

Even now, the MTB at Abu Dhabi, is imposing. Inside its central passenger handing area there are 18 broad arches, most larger than any seen in any other airport, that hold up a flowing, or floating set of roof lines that in places resembles those over Melbourne’s Southern Cross rail station but tenfold as large.

It will be the home of Etihad Airways and its partner airlines, including those it part owns, and it will most likely come on stream as Dubai’s current airport struggles despite recent expansion to cope with Emirates’ success, while still some years away from moving completely to the very large but less convenient second Dubai airport at Dubai World Central, which is around a quarter of the way from central Dubai to central Abu Dhabi.

In a briefing today by Ali Majed Al Mansoori, the chairman of Abu Dhabi Airports, it was made clear that with growth in passenger numbers of around 20 percent per year, the strategy was to build airport capacity ahead of demand to avoid choking on the success of Etihad and other airlines seeking to leverage the geographical as well as economic advantages of flying through a Gulf region hub. This could include adding third and fourth runways.

Abu Dhabi today handles more than 15 million passengers a year, and will be at around 18 million by the time the MTB is ready in the third quarter of 2017. Its current terminals will stay in operation, taking up to 18-20 million passengers annually because of on going improvements.

How Etihad's new home in Abu Dhabi will look by 2017

In other words, they will be bursting at the seams, which they already are today in peak demand surges, while the MTB will have a capacity of up to 30 millions passengers. Around five years later, the MTB could be joined by a further development with a similar potential annual capacity of 30 million passengers.

This could see Abu Dhabi able to handle 80 million passengers a year before the middle of the next decade, and easily surpass a capacity of 100 million annually, which is more than the world’s busiest airport today, Atlanta, at more than 95 million a year, by 2030.

Where Dubai would be by then is anyone’s guess, but its fair to say that both Abu Dhabi and Dubai see themselves benefiting their economies through sovereign investment in infrastructure and the expansion of their respective airports into super hubs each larger than anything on the planet in 2014.

The timing of the Abu Dhabi’s push for more aviation based prosperity comes just as Dubai’s current major airport is expected to be so pressured by the success of Emirates Airways to the extent that shifting its operations, to the more distant Dubai World Central airport will become even more urgent, and for travellers, more daunting in terms of overcrowding.

Al Mansoori didn’t use any Etihad versus Emirates rhetoric in his briefing.  The emphasis was on being ready to meet demand from all airlines seeking Middle East airport access to benefit from the jobs they generate.

But he also predicted that where some 70 percent of Abu Dhabi flyers are making connections at its airport, that figure was likely to go beyond 80 percent by 2017.

The entire MTB project is costing $US 2.8 billion, which provides 65 airliner gates including ten suitable for A380s, compared to as little as three more above ground suburban railway stations in Sydney for the same money.

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