x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Al Ain airport named world's fourth best

Passengers appreciate its facilities and friendly staff, according to a confidential study for travel-industry insiders leaked to The Times newspaper in London.

The Al Ain International Airport is quaint but staff are eager to please the 4,000 or so passengers coming through on a monthly basis.
The Al Ain International Airport is quaint but staff are eager to please the 4,000 or so passengers coming through on a monthly basis.

AL AIN // As Fatima walks to her security check station, preparing for the next batch of passengers flying to India, she considers why people seem to like this place.

"Maybe because we joke with them and we are nice," she says.

And like it they do. In a confidential study for travel-industry insiders leaked to The Times newspaper in London, Al Ain Internationalairport was ranked fourth in the world by passengers.

It was not the only UAE airport to make a strong showing in the Airport Service Quality (ASQ) study, with two other Emirati airports in the top 30. Dubai International Airport came in at 26, just pipping Abu Dhabi, which ranked 27th.

Meanwhile, among large airports, with more than 40 million passengers a year, Dubai was third, behind Hong Kong and Beijing.

Unsurprisingly, passengers prefer small terminals, which meant many of the world's biggest hubs rank lowly. London Heathrow, for example, was 99th on the overall list.

The ASQ study asked passengers to rate aspects of the airport such as availability of parking and customer service, combining the results into a total score out of five.

Although Al Ain airport is quiet for most of the day, staff are eager to please when passengers appear.

"We expected a high ranking because it is not busy here at all," Rashed al Shamisi, the operations manager, said. "As you can see around you, everyone is friendly, even the police."

About 4,000 passengers pass through the airport each month, most of them Indian and Pakistani. There are on average 14 commercial flights a week, connecting Al Ain to India, Pakistan, Oman, and Jordan.

While the airport can cater for 1,000 passengers an hour, it rarely has to cope with more than 300.

Sreedevi Nair, a 64-year-old Indian mother is one of the first passengers to arrive for the 12.30pm flight to Kerala. "I come here once a year," she said. "It is so close to my house, and people are nice."

She is travelling alone, as are many others. The suitcases, though, far outnumber the passengers.

"One of the main things people ask for here is for extra luggage space," says Farhan Qureshi, a customer services officer, adding that airlines are more flexible about excess baggage than before.

"The passengers here are different from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, they are from low income - usually - and low education. Their demands are different because they are simple, they like simple things."

Animo Baby's parents park near the entrance, eager to stay with her until the moment she goes through to departures.

"I am going with my three friends," says the 17-year-old Indian, who lives in Al Ain. "It is so close to my house. My parents just wanted to stay with us until we go in. There is free parking here."

That, according to ASQ survey respondents, was a big plus. "It is the only airport parking in the country that is free - you can park up to 24 hours," Mr Qureshi said.

Some people are never happy, however. Flavis Thomas, a 17-year-old Indian, wants a bigger duty free shop.

"I like this airport because you don't need to walk much, unlike Dubai airport," he says. "But they have better duty free - that is how it is, you cannot have both."

The light traffic means the shopping area is unlikely to get any bigger but other facilities are constantly upgraded, says Mr Qureshi, who walks around the airport searching for spots to mount new televisions and games consoles.

But Mrs Nair points out what she considers a higher priority. "The escalator needs to be fixed regularly too. I went up to get coffee, an old lady like me, it is hard to walk down on steps with coffee."

Three hours later, after the last passengers board, the terminal is silent again. It will be at least five hours before the next wave arrives.

osalem@thenational.ae