Left: Mohammed Al Katheeri, acting chief operations officer, Abu Dhabi Airports (center) with Roberto Castiglioni (right)
One of the fastest growing hubs in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) is a disability-friendly infrastructure, built from inception with accessibility in mind.
I am going to share a little secret. Whenever I audit an airport infrastructure, my first goal is to understand if it was built with accessibility in mind.
There are plenty of features and solutions that can be added at a later date, so my attention goes to accessible toilets. Mind you, I have visited places where toilets are accessible only on paper.
During my recent visit to AUH I was extremely pleased to find that, even in the oldest terminal building, every toilet block features at least one fully accessible toilet.
Towards the end of August, I experienced the exquisite hospitality of Abu Dhabi Airports’ acting chief operations officer Mohammed Al Katheeri.
My visit of AUH began with a presentation of services and features for passengers with disabilities. Passengers with disabilities are a fast growing segment across the world, and Abu Dhabi is no different from global airports.
On average, 32.000 passengers with special needs make use of the airport every month. The vast majority, 86%, are transit passengers.
Records show that the vast majority of passengers with disabilities make use of wheelchair assistance. Of these, over 5,500 every month require the highest degree of assistance.
Meeting the needs of the most vulnerable is of paramount importance for AUH management. Ongoing efforts to further improve the airport experience for WCHS and WCHC passengers lead AUH to purchase six new wheelchair accessible Mercedes Sprinter vans to facilitate transport from remote stands to the terminal building and vice versa.
A fleet of ambulifts ensures boarding and deplaning is a safe and dignified experience. Alongside ambulifts, Abu Dhabi Airports has introduced dozens of Avi Ramps to further facilitate operations at remote stands.
During the presentation, something definitely caught my attention. The vast majority of airports focus on all aspects of day-to-day operations, but only a handful thoroughly plan for the unexpected.
For example, in all older airport terminal buildings, and sometime even newer ones, vertical navigation is not accessible during an emergency evacuation. It is refreshing to learn that 61 evacuation chairs are being installed throughout Abu Dhabi’s terminals. In this respect, I can say with confidence AUH is better prepared than most airports across the globe.
Information on PRM (Persons with Reduced Mobility) services and facilities at AUH is available on the airport’s website, a useful resource for those passengers who like to do their homework before traveling.
At the end of the presentation, I made my way for the traditional walkabout following the passenger’s path of travel.
There are clearly marked drop-off bays in close proximity to the entrance of the terminal building. Ramps ensure a safe and effortless flow from the drop-off area on to the check-in area.
Pre-screening posts have been discontinued, so that reaching check-in desks is unobstructed from any of the terminals entry points.
Check-in desks are the designated meeting point. That’s where pre-booked and not notified passengers are met by assistance.
At this time there are no calling totems in the proximity of accessible parking bays or drop-off areas, therefore passengers with reduced mobility may have to ask their companions to alert assistance inside the terminal.
From the check-in onward, the journey throughout the airport is as pleasant as it can be. Accessible e-gates lead to a dedicated passport control booth.
I found passport processing to be a little time consuming, but well within acceptable waiting times. All public areas after security are within reach and wide enough to allow for safe passage of wheelchairs.
Lifts are also accessible, with audio guides and braille embossed buttons. There are a number of dedicated waiting areas located in quieter zones of the departures hall. But those who wish to browse the duty-free shops or have a quick bite can have assistance guide them.
Every airport, even the most accessible one, presents areas that can benefit from further improvement.
At AUH I found wayfinding could benefit from an upgrade (for example just a handful of accessible toilets are clearly marked). The other possible upgrade concerns the enplaning and deplaning process.
Readers of this website know I am a big fan of medical grade hoists, tools that offer passengers with severe mobility limitations safe and dignified boarding. I firmly believe all airports around the world should at least offer medical grade hoists as an option. It is my understanding Abu Dhabi Airports is looking into this.
So far I talked about the present. But currently under construction at AUH is the new Midfield Terminal. Summer temperatures (it was 46ºC on the day of my visit) did not allow for a visit of the new terminal on this occasion.
From what I was told, the new building is fully compliant with the strictest accessibility requirements. I am looking forward to a visit to the site next spring so that our readers will be first to learn how Abu Dhabi Airports can make an already accessible airport even better.
As father of a son with Cerebral Palsy and lifelong frequent flyer, Roberto Castiglioni found the need to get involved in air travel facilitation for passengers with special needs to improve access to air travel for passengers with disabilities. In the last few years he has worked with the UK Civil Aviation Authority on intelligence, policy, and compliance. He has also given consulting services to several airlines, airports, and PRM service providers to improve access to air travel for disabled persons. Castiglioni has been a member of the UK CAA Access to Air Travel Advisory Group since December 2012, and the easyjet special assistance advisory group since May 2012.
October 14, 2016