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Is this the world’s best airport? Face recognition check-in, board direct from the lounge, no queues… The Mail discovers that Abu Dhabi’s £2.4billion Zayed International is a futuristic masterpiece


This is an airport like no other – impressive enough to be a tourist attraction. So beautiful it’s worthy of a postcard. So spacious it should perhaps carry a trigger warning for agoraphobics.

Which makes the experience of being a passenger in Abu Dhabi’s new Zayed International Airport – comprising one single Terminal A – an utterly surreal one.

There’s no hassle, no jostling, no general sense of despair. No one likes a delay but here it means the chance to gaze at the wonder of it all. I feel like I’ve entered a utopian futurescape.

NO EXPENSE SPARED 

Terminal A cost a cool $3billion (£2.4billion) to build and opened in November to replace the old terminals 1, 2 and 3. It had been a long time coming, with the contracts for construction signed off in 2012 and the grand unveiling originally earmarked for 2017.

Now, it’s the home hub of the UAE’s national airline, Etihad, with its name changing this year from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Zayed International Airport, after the UAE’s Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

The future of air travel: Ted Thornhill takes in the glittering magnificence of Abu Dhabi¿s new Zayed International Airport Terminal A. Behind him is Sana Al Nour, a huge vase-like structure consisting of 1,632 curved translucent glass panels that stands 22m (72ft) tall and 17m (55ft) wide

The future of air travel: Ted Thornhill takes in the glittering magnificence of Abu Dhabi’s new Zayed International Airport Terminal A. Behind him is Sana Al Nour, a huge vase-like structure consisting of 1,632 curved translucent glass panels that stands 22m (72ft) tall and 17m (55ft) wide

Terminal A cost a cool $3 billion (£2.4 billion) to build and opened in November to replace the old terminals 1, 2 and 3. It¿s the home hub of the UAE¿s national airline, Etihad

Terminal A cost a cool $3 billion (£2.4 billion) to build and opened in November to replace the old terminals 1, 2 and 3. It’s the home hub of the UAE’s national airline, Etihad

STATE-OF-THE-ART DESIGN

The futuristic hub has been designed by the U.S architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), which was behind New York’s Hudson Yards complex and Atlantis The Royal hotel in Dubai.

Within seconds, before reaching the check-in desks, I conclude that with Terminal A the firm has come up with a near-perfect concept. All airports should be like this.

The cavernous space by the entrance is dominated by an installation called ‘Sana Al Nour’ – a huge vase-like structure consisting of 1,632 curved translucent glass panels that stands 22m (72ft) tall and 17m (55ft) wide. Not just pretty on the eye, Sana Al Nour also facilitates energy-saving airflow for the entire terminal building, allowing for cool air to pass through the front and top of it, while heat rises through the middle.

Sana Al Nour (above) facilitates energy-saving airflow for the entire terminal building, allowing for cool air to pass through the front and top of it, while heat rises through the middle

Sana Al Nour (above) facilitates energy-saving airflow for the entire terminal building, allowing for cool air to pass through the front and top of it, while heat rises through the middle

I point my camera at the arching, operatic support pillars that reach up into the roof. Little wonder, I muse, that director Christopher McQuarrie chose Terminal A to shoot some of the dramatic opening scenes for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.

HASSLE-FREE CHECK-IN AND SECURITY

Forget queuing – especially if you take advantage of the airport’s ground-breaking biometric system.

Terminal A is the only airport in the world where passengers can navigate through immigration and the check-in and boarding process without the need for physical documents, thanks to biometric cameras placed at strategic points.

Ted checks in for his business-class flight with Etihad to Heathrow. He writes: 'This is an airport like no other - impressive enough to be a tourist attraction. So beautiful it¿s worthy of a postcard. So spacious it should perhaps carry a trigger warning for agoraphobics'

Ted checks in for his business-class flight with Etihad to Heathrow. He writes: ‘This is an airport like no other – impressive enough to be a tourist attraction. So beautiful it’s worthy of a postcard. So spacious it should perhaps carry a trigger warning for agoraphobics’

Terminal A is the only airport in the world where passengers can navigate through immigration and the check-in and boarding process without the need for physical documents, thanks to biometric cameras placed at strategic points

Terminal A is the only airport in the world where passengers can navigate through immigration and the check-in and boarding process without the need for physical documents, thanks to biometric cameras placed at strategic points

Christopher McQuarrie chose Terminal A to shoot some of the dramatic opening scenes for Mission: Impossible ¿ Dead Reckoning Part One

Christopher McQuarrie chose Terminal A to shoot some of the dramatic opening scenes for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

You still need to have your passport and other documents with you, but use facial recognition and extra checks are greatly reduced, making for an even more seamless process.

I haven’t registered for the ‘facial recognition journey’, but I practically float through to departures nevertheless.

Security is a leap forward, too. All my liquids stay in my bag for the cutting-edge X-ray machine, overseen by shockingly polite staff, though my laptop has to be removed.

AIRSIDE SHOPPING

After security, passengers enter 35,000 square metres of shopping heaven. Ted writes: 'Get ready to douse your credit card, because several major designer brands have set up shop, from Gucci to Yves Saint Laurent, Hermes to Ferragamo'

After security, passengers enter 35,000 square metres of shopping heaven. Ted writes: ‘Get ready to douse your credit card, because several major designer brands have set up shop, from Gucci to Yves Saint Laurent, Hermes to Ferragamo’

Budget buys are also available airside. There¿s a Costa Coffee, Starbucks, TGI Fridays, McDonald¿s, KFC, Jones the Grocer, Camden Food Co, Meat District and a Todd English restaurant

Budget buys are also available airside. There’s a Costa Coffee, Starbucks, TGI Fridays, McDonald’s, KFC, Jones the Grocer, Camden Food Co, Meat District and a Todd English restaurant

Once through security, you enter a gleaming shopper’s paradise that covers 35,000 square metres.

Get ready to douse your credit card, because several major designer brands have set up shop, from Gucci to Yves Saint Laurent, Hermes to Ferragamo.

Budget buys are also available. There’s a Costa Coffee, Starbucks, TGI Fridays, McDonald’s, KFC, Jones the Grocer, Camden Food Co, Meat District and a Todd English restaurant.

What strikes me, as I wonder hither and thither, is the tranquillity of it all.

ACRES OF SPACE

The airport can handle 45million passengers annually, 11,000 passengers per hour and has stands for 79 aircraft (65 of which are connected to the building). Terminal A covers 742,000 square metres (about double the size of Heathrow’s Terminal 5) and has walkways almost big enough for a Dreamliner to trundle through.

If you lose a loved one, there’s no need to worry – just WhatsApp using the airport’s fast, free and password-less Wi-Fi.

HEADING FOR THE GATE

The airport claims a kerb-to-gate time of 12 minutes if you’re using the biometric recognition system and you have a convenient departure gate. Arriving two hours before your flight shouldn’t be necessary here.

The gates are arranged along four tentacle-like arms that stretch out from a central hub to form an X shape. Each tentacle is themed differently, representing Abu Dhabi’s natural landscapes of desert, sea, city and oasis. Luton Airport this isn’t.

LUXURIOUS LOUNGES

The world-class Etihad lounge ¿ three floors of wanton (complimentary) luxury for business, first class, and tier-status economy passengers

The world-class Etihad lounge – three floors of wanton (complimentary) luxury for business, first class, and tier-status economy passengers

Ted checks in to the stunning Etihad lounge

Ted receives a mocktail at the lounge bar

LEFT: Ted checks in to the stunning Etihad lounge. RIGHT: Ted receives a mocktail at the lounge bar

The lounge bar features a live cooking station, above, which serves local and international dishes

The lounge bar features a live cooking station, above, which serves local and international dishes

My departure experience finishes in the world-class Etihad lounge – three floors of wanton (complimentary) luxury for business, first class, and tier-status economy passengers.

There is a live cooking station serving local and international dishes, a bar worthy of a five-star hotel, 18 shower suites, games rooms for adults and children, and more modish seating that you can shake a neck pillow at. 

I am given a sneak peek at the first-class area, which features inviting semi-cocooned private seating areas shielded by elegant curtains.

Above is the adult games room in the Etihad lounge. There is a children's games room next door

Above is the adult games room in the Etihad lounge. There is a children’s games room next door

Ted is given a sneak peek at the first-class area (above), 'which features inviting semi-cocooned private seating areas shielded by elegant curtains'

Ted is given a sneak peek at the first-class area (above), ‘which features inviting semi-cocooned private seating areas shielded by elegant curtains’

Some of the gates connect to the lounge, which faces the runway, with huge windows affording guests magnificent views of manoeuvering planes ¿ including A380 superjumbos. Above is the first-class lounge

Some of the gates connect to the lounge, which faces the runway, with huge windows affording guests magnificent views of manoeuvering planes – including A380 superjumbos. Above is the first-class lounge

The image above shows the general relaxation area in the Etihad first-class lounge section

The image above shows the general relaxation area in the Etihad first-class lounge section

The airport can handle 45million passengers annually, 11,000 passengers per hour and has stands for 79 aircraft (65 of which are connected to the building)

The airport can handle 45million passengers annually, 11,000 passengers per hour and has stands for 79 aircraft (65 of which are connected to the building)

Some of the gates connect to the lounge, which faces the runway, with huge windows affording guests magnificent views of manoeuvering planes – including A380 superjumbos.

BOARDING THE PLANE

If you’re an Etihad lounge user and your flight is departing from one of the gates connected to the lounge, you can board directly. Mine is. And it only takes a couple of minutes to go from bar to air bridge, with beaming staff on hand to make sure I don’t take a wrong turn and end up in a shower suite by accident.

As my plane backs away from the airport, I admire the mesmerising wavy rooftop of the airport, which mirrors the UAE’s undulating dunes.

THE VERDICT? THAT’S EASY

Singapore’s Changi Airport was named the world’s best at the 2023 Skytrax World Airport Awards – ‘the Oscars of the airport industry’. It was the 12th time it had snared the gong. And given its acclaimed features, including the world’s highest indoor waterfall and an ‘enchanted garden’, no one was surprised.

But that was before Zayed International Airport’s Terminal A burst upon the scene.

I would eat my boarding pass if this sensational Abu Dhabi project doesn’t secure the crown next year.

The airport's name changed this year from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Zayed International Airport, after the UAE¿s Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan

The airport’s name changed this year from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Zayed International Airport, after the UAE’s Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan

Terminal A covers 742,000 square metres (about double the size of Heathrow¿s Terminal 5) and has walkways 'almost big enough for a Dreamliner to trundle through'

Terminal A covers 742,000 square metres (about double the size of Heathrow’s Terminal 5) and has walkways ‘almost big enough for a Dreamliner to trundle through’



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