Site visit: Midfield Terminal Building, Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi Airport's MTB hits key milestone ahead of 2017 opening

Four piers will be able to handle 65 aircraft
Four piers will be able to handle 65 aircraft

The new Midfield Terminal Complex at Abu Dhabi Airport is one of the most eagerly-anticipated projects being undertaken in the Emirate for years. Yamurai Zendera toured the site as the project reached a key milestone

Abu Dhabi Airports CEO Tony Douglas says that very shortly the AED10.9bn ($2.9bn) Midfield Terminal Building (MTB) at Abu Dhabi International Airport is about to go from “being one of the better-kept secrets to a spectator sport.”

To be frank, the MTB will be massive when complete in 2017. Reaching 700,000m2 in area, it will be about one-and-a-half times bigger than Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport and also Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5.

It will be the largest single building in Abu Dhabi and be visible from more than 1.5km away; a striking steel structure between the airport’s northern and southern runways. No wonder Douglas believes it will soon be the talk of the town.

His bullishness came a day after a “critical project milestone” was reached seven days ahead of schedule – the placing of the first buttress for the main structural steel arches. The buttress is one of 18 substructures that will form the MTB steel structure.

This base will hold nine arches that will comprise the building's roof, which will have an arch span of 180m at its widest point. Each arch weighs approximately 700 tonnes. At its apex the MTB roof will be 52 metres tall.

“That was the transition from the project being a big basement, to it starting to come out of the ground and allowing us to move in sequence that will put the arch forms of the roof in place and hence the reason why it will become a spectator sport, because people are going to be able to see it from the highway,” says Douglas.

“Many people will drive past it; they’ll look at it. When they realise how big 700,000m2 is I’m sure most people are going to go ‘wow’, because it’s truly amazing.”

The MTB is the key element of the new Midfield Terminal Complex (MTC), which will include cargo and catering facilities, utilities and related infrastructure to help the airport meet an anticipated capacity of 17 million annual passengers by 2017.

Douglas boldly states that the MTB, destined to become the gateway to Abu Dhabi and the future home of Etihad Airways, will be open at 7am on 17 July, 2017. It will have a capacity for 30m passengers in its first year of operation. The existing terminals 1 and 3 will be used by Etihad and its partners, he adds.

Around 11% of the MTB is already built, with about 12,000 labourers doing split shifts of 20 hours per day from the main contractor – a joint venture of Arabtec, Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC) and TAV.

“That’s allowed us to hit an extremely high production daily output,” says Douglas. “We’re doing about 1,200m3 of concrete a day. You probably won’t find too many other projects anywhere that are producing that daily volume.”

Put simply, as Douglas says, the project can’t be finished fast enough given the phenomenal growth of Etihad Airways. “I think it’s fair to say that Etihad has done such a fantastic job of growing its business in recent years that we simply can’t keep up. They’re growing faster than we can put the capacity down at this point in time. That’s the reason why the milestone was so important.”

That the project is now flying high is in no small part due to the leadership of Douglas. Brought on board in March from his job as CEO of Abu Dhabi Ports Company (ADPC), he has lots of mega-project experience.

He was previously Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 managing director, with responsibility for the delivery of its £4.3bn build. He also oversaw the $7.2bn Khalifa Port on time for its deadline of 12/12/2012.

When Douglas joined Abu Dhabi Airports it was well known that the project had been beset with delays. To overcome the inertia, he set about making a number of changes, including putting in place a much more collaborative management structure.

“This project had a history of stop/start, stop/start, stop/start. It had been going on for a long time in terms of the planning phase. It’s fair to say that when the starting pistol had the trigger pulled, people fell over their shoelaces.

I think it would be equally fair to say that if you’d said to some participants – because this is a truly global project – what do you think is likely to happen next given the prior form, they’d probably say, after we start we’ll probably stop again.

“So we’ve made quite a number of what I would describe as significant changes, but the most significant of all is making it a collaborative project whereby now I’d like to think we are an active client – we’re very much hands on, all over it, into every last line of detail. But it's not like we’re saying ‘we’re man-marking you, you’re man-marking him’ and so on and so forth.”

An example of this new approach is the ‘principals meeting’ that happens every six weeks between all the chief executives of the project team. The latest was held last Sunday (27 October) where they signed off on the next 200-day plan.

“So we’ll break it down into bite size pieces because the risk with big mega-projects is that everybody starts playing everything long. It doesn’t work.”

On top of this, there is now also a weekly major production review.

Douglas, in addition, has ensured that everyone is using one single BIM (Building Information Modelling) system, which he says is the largest in the world.

Previously, it was only used by the Arabtec, CCC and TAV joint venture, but Douglas was unequivocal about what would happen to anyone who resisted its use. “If you don’t want to use it, you’re off,” he says in no uncertain terms.

“When you think about the scale of something like this you simply cannot do it without a model of that type. Even all the as-builts will come in the BIM model. We not only developed the BIM for that purpose but we’ve developed the BIM so it becomes an integrated planning tool – so we’ve all got one version now of the sequence of how you put something as complicated as this together,” he adds.

“I think it’s fair to say this has got more in common with building a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier than a construction project. The reason why? Well it’s a systems integration project that happens to sit in an enormous building; not to be confused with a big building. And that’s where quite often airport projects can get a bit off-site. We’ve had the BIM for some time but we’ve actually got it where now everybody uses the one model.”

Over the next 200 days, half of the roof structure and the facade will be erected. Douglas describes it as “the most complex roof, on any building, anywhere on the face of the planet”.
He says that “if 2013 was the year of the substructure then 2014 would be the year of the superstructure” when the workforce is likely to reach a project peak of 16,000-17,000 in the second quarter.

The eventual seven-storey MTB has three levels below ground and will house the world’s biggest baggage handling system in the basement.

“The reason why it’s the world’s biggest baggage handling system is that Etihad and its partners will be occupants of this terminal and they have got a very high transfer mix.

“So over 70% of the people who will fly in with Etihad and partners will then transfer and fly out somewhere else. As a consequence, if you have a terminal that has a capacity for over 30m passengers a year, if you can’t take the bags out of the system, then the whole thing would literally grind to a halt.”

Four 750m long piers that will contain 47 gate houses with a capacity to handle 65 aircraft will connect to the central building (there will also be 14 remote stands). All of the piers are now out of the ground from one end and working towards the centre.

Piers 1 and 4 are single-sided as they are located landside, whereas piers 2 and 3 are airside and therefore double-sided. All have a utilities basement.

“We’re really advanced with the inner and outer taxiways, so that the aircraft can come straight off the northern runway through this taxi arrangement directly onto the stand.”

Douglas says the MTB has been set up to accommodate the Etihad Rail project, if it decides to connect to the airport. The 1,200km railway line will extend across the UAE, from the border of Saudi Arabia to the border of Oman. The first stage involves a cargo-only line from Shah and Habshan to Ruwais which has already begun running.

“In the front of the building we’ve actively safeguarded in the basement for a station box. So the orientation of all the structural piles allows us to be able to come in with an alignment in the future to connect both a light rail and a metro system.

“So as and when they’re specified we know exactly where it will connect into this building as opposed to (being) open a few years and think ‘my goodness, we’re going to have to dig up the front’.”

Douglas has also not ruled out further expansion linked to the MTB, amazingly in just a couple of years’ time if Etihad continues to grow at its current rate.

“If this question had been asked two or three years ago with the growth forecasts that were in place, then theoretically you could have moved almost everything into this one big mega structure [the MTB],” he says.

“If you maintain the growth trajectory that Etihad is on, probably within three years after we’ve opened this building in 2017 we’ll then need to consider where the next extension goes to, whether it’s a linked midfield to this, because that’s the level of growth we’re looking at.”

Interesting, Douglas says Abu Dhabi Airport will not be affected by the new passenger terminal at Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central (DWC), which opened its doors for business last Sunday (October 27).

“Obviously Emirates doesn’t fly out of Abu Dhabi and Etihad doesn’t fly out of Dubai. So consequently, the growth of both of them is disproportionately influenced by the growth of the home-based carrier. So because Etihad doesn’t fly out of either of the Dubai airports the impact will be zero.”

Abu Dhabi International Airport
Abu Dhabi International Airport is one of the fastest growing airport hubs in the world currently serving over 93 destinations in 54 countries, and within the next few years, over 20 million passengers are expected to use it as their origin, destination or transit point for international and domestic flights.

To meet growing demand, Abu Dhabi Airports has been developing the Midfield Terminal Building (MTB) ready for 2017. An AED10.9bn ($2.9bn) deal for its construction was signed in June 2012 with a joint venture of Arabtec, Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC) and TAV.

The building of the MTB is a key part of the new Midfield Terminal Complex (MTC), which will include cargo and catering facilities, utilities and related infrastructure to meet the anticipated 17 million annual passengers by 2017. In its first year of operation the MTB will have a capacity for 30 million passengers annually.

Project Overview

Abu Dhabi Airports

Architects and engineers:
Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) with Ove Arup, NACO and BNP Associates

Floor area:
700,000 m2 (terminal building) central terminal space can easily fit three football fields

Arch span:
180m (20m wider than the largest arch span at Heathrow Terminal 5), weighing around 700 tonnes

Roof spans:
319m at widest point (almost twice as wide as Heathrow Terminal 5 – 160m)

Ceiling height:
52m at highest point

External cladding and glazing:
275,000m2 of aluminium cladding
115,000m2 of external glazing

Outstanding tenders:
One linked to special systems, the other to fit-outs

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