I’ve just returned from a quick two days in Abu Dhabi, attending and speaking at, the Airport Exchange Conference, organized by both ACI Europe and ACI Asia Pacific. It is an excellent event, with about 1200 people in attendance it is probably the third largest gathering of airport professionals in the world, after the ACI-NA and AAAE annual conferences. Airport Exchange combines a half dozen separate meetings into one event, I was there to speak at the Security session.
More than most such meetings, it was great to see so many people from the entire airport world, all in one place. One such person is Jim Bennett, former CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority who is now ABU Dhabi airport’s CEO. Abu Dhabi has great ambitions for it’s airport as a global hub and in Jim they have the right person to make that happen.
Also had a chance to spend almost a half hour with John Pistole, TSA Administrator. It is kind of funny to go 6,000 miles to meet with someone who works just about 5 miles from my office but it was a good chance to get together and discuss a number of outstanding issues and we took advantage. I am particularly hopeful about his Risk Based Security initiative; that is what he spoke to the conference about and I also focused on it during my remarks.
A very interesting, humbling session was one moderated by ACI Europe Chair Declan Collier on disaster recovery. The CEO from Narita was there and talked about how Japan recovered from the earthquake and tsunami. He reminded everyone that the fear from the result of the nuclear plant disaster was just as important. Brussels airport was there talking about responding to heavy snows and the ash cloud crisis, and the head of CANSO, the equivalent of ACI World for air navigation services providers, gave a global perspective on dealing with disasters and other large events.
As I had to get back for meetings in Washington, the trip was shorter than I would have liked, four nights away from home, two spent sleeping on planes and two at the hotel. I can tell you right now, my new favorite amenity is a shower in an airport lounge. I transited in Frankfurt on both ends and had pretty long layovers. After hitting the showers I felt like a new man!
You can’t go to Abu Dhabi, though, without remarking about the place itself. Several pictures are included in this post. The beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the largest
in the world that is not located in Saudi Arabia. It has 82 domes and is in a great setting. On my last night, as I was being driven back from the gala dinner to prepare to catch my flight I got to witness an amazing light show emanating from the Mosque. The show was in honor of the upcoming (Dec 2) UAE National Day, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the country.
I have written previously about how I like to be in a country when it celebrates a big day of national significance and I have been lucky enough to do this many times in several countries. It gives you a sense of the place, from May Day in Soviet Moscow to Hungarian Independence Day in Budapest (when I marched in the parade) to St. Anthonys Day in Lisbon this last summer, I have found that the national personality comes out at such times. There were plenty of signs, flags and decorations everywhere and it seemed to be much on the minds of everyone. I’m glad I could be there at this time and only regret that I could stay longer.
Abu Dhabi is certainly an “over the top” kind of place, though much less so than Dubai. Still, Abu Dhabi is the place where the planned UAE extensions of the Louvre, Guggenheim and Cleveland Clinic will be based. There is one very small island where a development is going up, a couple of dozen towers. As many people will live in those towers as live in all of Iceland!
Yes, I did see a Gold vending machine. It was located in the Emirates Palace hotel. Opulent doesn’t begin to describe this place. No, I didn’t stay there (though my son does when he goes to Abu Dhabi on business, I have a new admiration for him!). The gala dinner was held there and though I had to leave early to catch my plane I could get a good enough feel of the place. It is amazing, huge, beautiful, gracious and over the top all at the same time. I hope the pictures give you a little sense of the place.
You are reminded regularly that you are “not in Kansas anymore” when you visit a place like Abu Dhabi. Constant references to the visionary founder and current visionary president; we don’t even talk about George Washington that way. Heck, we even got this during the recorded tour as part of one of those Big Bus city tours (I try to take one of them whenever I am in a new city and don’t have much time, or simply to become oriented).
All the construction cranes, only a small fraction of what I saw in Dubai two years ago, but a lot of them. The flyover on Monday afternoon, right over downtown Abu Dhabi. Four fighters doing a series of maneuvers, exciting, exhilarating and chilling at the same time. I’m sure they were practicing for National Day activities, but right over downtown? Nothing the FAA or Pentagon would ever go for, but no one is going to tell the leaders there they can’t have this kind of show.
It is hard to describe places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It would be difficult to imagine living there, but I have enjoyed visiting. If you behave and use some common sense, there is a sense of freedom. If you step a bit out of line you might quickly see another side of the place. It is a place of great energy, and a place where many people just don’t seem to want to move very fast. So many contradictions. Fascinating.
If you get a chance, go.