Recently, I had the “pleasure” of transferring flights at the Abu Dhabi International airport. I flew from Singapore to New York on Etihad Airways (actually, a pretty good airline) and, as all Etihad flights do, I had to transfer through Abu Dhabi. Etihad is the national airline of the UAE, and has won all sorts of awards in recent years, so I was a little excited about going to the airport in the ultra-modern city of Abu Dhabi, considering the level of service and modernity on the airline.
Boy was I disappointed! First, there are 3 terminals in the Abu Dhabi airport. Terminals 2 and 3 are much newer than Terminal 1, but they’re normal, cookie-cutter terminals that could be in any airport in the world. There are plans to totally overhaul the entire airport and build a brand new one, and I couldn’t agree with those sentiments more! My flight arrived in Terminal 3. It was like most airport terminals in that it was a long corridor with departure gates on either side. We walked through the upstairs, “sequestered” area because most people from my flight from Singapore were only in Abu Dhabi to transfer to other flights elsewhere in the world. I had heard that the United States Customs Service had opened an actual outpost in the Abu Dhabi International airport in Terminal 3, so I was excited to go through customs there and not have to wait in the ginormous queue when I arrived at JFK. This was the first disappointment….my flight to New York was leaving from Terminal 1, and I would not have the possibility of partaking of the customs services in Terminal 3. Ok…so what…I expected to go through a long queue at customs in JFK anyway, so nothing different.
Then I found out that to get to Terminal 1 from where I was took a “15 minutes walk,” as the sign said. I have a bad back, and walking on hard linoleum after having sat for 7 hours straight is not conducive to healing. Granted, part of the way was covered by moving walkways, but I would say that covered about 1/3 of the total distance. So, I started out….slowly. It took me almost 30 minutes to reach Terminal 1 (the oldest terminal). Terminal 1 was built more than 30 years ago, and it shows. It has that sad, trying to look modern, feel that so many 1980s buildings have. It’s a “common room” terminal in that it is one large circular room with all the waiting chairs and a few shops, with departure gates veering off every 20-30 meters or so. The large room was overcrowded, and people were standing all over the place. It reminded me of those scenes of refugees that I watched on CNN recently after that militant group in Iraq started taking over towns. People were strewn about (and this was at 12:30AM). Most of the shops were closed, however a coffee shop and a smoke shop (of course, this is the UAE) were still open. The floor was dirty and covered with trash that people had just thrown wherever they wanted and there was a musty, almost sweaty smell about the whole terminal. It was disgusting, really. Just about the only good thing about the terminal is that there was free wifi, but you have to be close to one of the wifi hubs, otherwise you lose it (fairly quickly).
In the middle of the terminal is a giant tile ceiling that cones down into the downstairs area. I can tell that it must have been spectacular in its day, but now it was stained, sad and missing a few tiles. It also took up valuable space that could have contained more chairs on which I could have been sitting, instead of leaning on a hard metal rail with the bad back that I just aggravated by having to walk 200 kilometers from Terminal 3!! I found my gate (Gate 9) and noticed there was a long queue there. It was about 12:40AM, and my flight wasn’t due to board until 1:20AM. At first I thought, “they must be like the Spanish people I used to see in Madrid who would queue in line for a flight even though they had assigned seats (those Spanish love to queue),” but then I noticed the line was moving, slightly, but it was moving. So I investigated more…apparently, I needed to go through a security check again before getting on the flight, and the security check was at the end of the long hallway that led to the gate. So…I reluctantly got in the queue. “How bad can it be,” I wondered, “at least there may be seats at the gate where I can sit down.”
Here was another disappointment. I entered the line and waited. And waited and waited and waited. It took almost 1 hour before I finally arrived at the scanners. There was only 1 scanner working for a fully booked flight of over 300 people. There were 2 scanners, but one was laying there idle because it was broken. So….why keep the plane at this gate?!?!?! If the damn scanner is broken and you know it’s going to take a millennium to scan and check all the people, why not move the plane to a gate where there are 2 working scanners?!?!? This does not take a genius!! Or, if you can’t move the plane, get someone there to fix the damn scanner!! There has to be someone on staff who can come down and check that thing out! No, there was one scanner sitting there, with nobody working on it or even looking at it, and 2 security lines randomly converging into 1 at the 1 working security scanner. To top it off, whenever someone set the scanner off, they didn’t have a cool little hand wand to check the person out, they made the person empty their pockets, take of their belt, etc. and sent them through again. The guy in front of me had to go through 4 times before they realized that the security card he uses for work (which was inside his wallet) was setting off the scanner. This was all while about 150 people were waiting behind him to walk through the 1 working scanner. I could only imagine how many others had been forced to do the “metal walk” before him, holding up the rest of us behind him/her.
When I finally got through the security checkpoint, the flight was already boarding. I knew at that moment that were not leaving on time. The number of passengers that were still behind me in the queue was massive, and I knew I’d be waiting on that plane for a long time. At least I would be sitting and not standing in a crowded, stinking, cattle-call terminal. The flight, which was supposed to leave at 2:20AM, pushed back from the terminal at 3:15. I fully blame that enormous security line and the ineptitude of the Abu Dhabi International airport staff at getting people through and onto their plane on time. Luckily, the Etihad pilots are good at what they do, so we arrived on time.
For a city that wants to be seen as a leading center for industry and business, Abu Dhabi needs to do some very needed upgrading to its airport. Apparently, it’s in the plans, but it hasn’t begun yet. The facilities will be nicely upgraded (I went online and looked at some of the renderings), but they also need to upgrade their staff. There was no need for 6 security officers to be crowded around 1 security scanner, ushering people slowly through, when some of them could have been trying to fix the other scanner. There is no need to continually send people back and forth through the scanner instead of getting a security hand wand and scanning them manually. Remember, these are all people who have ALREADY gone through a security check at their original airport! This was only a secondary, precautionary check! It was a ridiculous array of ineptitude and stupidity. I like Etihad, but if I have to fly through Abu Dhabi every time I use them, I will think twice about it next time. I do NOT look forward to the flight back to Singapore!