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Dubai Airports CEO, Paul Griffiths, talks to Joe Bates about the growth and development of Dubai’s airport system and some of the opportunities and challenges going forward.

When Paul Griffiths became CEO of Dubai Airports in late 2007, Dubai Civil Aviation Authority president and CEO and chairman of the Emirates Group, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, asked only one thing of him, to never constrain the growth of the aviation sector in the Emirate.

He appreciated the clarity of the message and it is clearly something that he has never forgotten as it remains his motivation today as Dubai embarks on the next stage of its aviation journey.

Back in 2007, the UAE’s biggest airport, Dubai International (DXB), was handling around 34.3 million passengers yearly and thinking about the opportunities that could be created by the opening of a second gateway.

Eleven years on and DXB is not only bigger and better than before with new facilities such as Terminal 3 and Concourse D, but it has become the undisputed busiest international airport in the world handling in excess of 88 million passengers per annum.

While Dubai’s second gateway, Dubai World Central (DWC) opened in 2010, continues to grow, welcoming a record 904,940 passengers (+6.4%) and 972,000 tonnes of cargo (+8.3%) in 2017.

The bottom line is Dubai now has a two-airport system capable of handling well over 100 million passengers per annum.

And the scary thing for rival airports is that with DWC’s master plan based around the creation of a 240mppa plus gateway and Griffiths believing that DXB has plenty of more growth in it, as impressive as Dubai’s airport system is today, it is nowhere near its full potential.

“The potential here is huge and as long as we can keep ahead of demand in terms of our ability to handle more traffic, in other words never let capacity constraints hold us back, there’s no reason why our passenger numbers cannot go on rising for years to come,” enthuses Griffiths.


Dubai International Airport

For now and the coming decade at least, Dubai International will remain the jewel in the crown of Dubai Airports, which in the last seven years alone has invested $7.8 billion on upgrading its facilities to ensure that it keeps pace with rising demand.

Terminal 1’s $1.2 billion Concourse D, the final major piece of infrastructure to be built at DXB as part of its Strategic Plan 2020 programme, opened in 2016 and overnight raised the airport’s capacity from 75mppa to 90mppa.

With passenger numbers at DXB rising by an average of 9% per annum for the past five years, its addition was very much needed. It has also given Dubai Airports a little breathing space to consider what to do next at the airport ahead of unveiling its new master plan to 2030.

Concourse D is currently home to the 60 international airlines that operate into DXB’s Terminal 1 and handles around 17 million passengers annually.

With Dubai Airports harbouring such big plans for DWC, and no plans for new infrastructure at DXB on the drawing board, it could be the last major addition to the gateway’s facilities as the airport operator concentrates more on how technology and improved passenger processing can raise the airport’s capacity.

Indeed, earlier in 2018 Dubai Airports unveiled its DXB Plus programme, which aims to raise the airport’s capacity to around 118mppa by 2023 through the continual investment in systems, processes and technology improvements.

DXB’s recently introduced Automated Border Control (ABC) SmartGates – which when combined with a sophisticated sensor system that allows operations staff to monitor congestion have delivered a 28% reduction in average queue times – is just one example how Dubai Airports has been quick to embrace pioneering new technology.

“The big focus is to make passenger processing more efficient by replacing a lot of the legacy technology and processes that really shouldn’t exist in today’s modern world,” says Griffiths.

As an example of what he means, he says that companies such as Amazon, Uber and eBay “have reinvented the entire end-to-end process by taking out the bureaucracy, paperwork and the steps in the middle”, and believes that airports are in a prime position to do the same.

He is a firm supporter of the biometric single token travel concept, which he believes will be a real game changer for the industry, if adopted worldwide, as it would ensure passengers could seamlessly pass through airports without the need for any physical documentation.

If the DXB Plus programme achieves its goal, and there’s absolutely no reason to doubt that it won’t, Dubai will have an airport system capable of accommodating 144mppa, which should be sufficient to meet demand until at least 2030.

Griffiths also refuses to rule out the addition of new terminals and concourses at DXB in the future if demand dictates it.

“We are a business that is focused on growth, service quality and sustainability, and that means planning many years ahead, so I cannot say that Concourse D will be the last piece of infrastructure at DXB, but for now we are very much focused on technological advancements,” he states.


Dubai World Central

DWC opened to cargo operations in 2010 and passenger services in October 2013. Today, its single, recently expanded passenger terminal is home to ten airlines operating 21 weekly flights to six international destinations.

Its passenger airlines include Aeroflot, flydubai, Gulf Air, Jazeera Airways, TUI Airlines Nederland, Rotana Jet and Wizz Air.

In addition, DWC is served by 20 scheduled cargo carriers offering freight connections to 45 different destinations around the globe.

Griffiths says that these numbers will rise as DXB begins to fill up and more services move 63 kilometres south to DWC, creating some transfer traffic between the gateways, which doesn’t really happen today.

The newly expanded terminal at DWC now boasts 104 check-in desks, 24 boarding gates and bigger check-in, immigration, baggage reclaim and security areas that ensure that the gateway is equipped to handle up to 26.5 million passengers per annum. Not much smaller than London Gatwick was when Griffiths left it for Dubai in 2007.

But this is just the beginning for DWC as with phased development it will ultimately be capable of handling an incredible 240 million passengers and 16 million tonnes of cargo per annum and sit at the heart of an airport city project that includes five other mega developments – Dubai Logistics City (DLC), Commercial City, Residential City, Aviation City and Golf City – over a 140 square kilometre area.

A huge $32 billion has been set aside for the airport’s development, which is expected to be centred around the creation of 12 different nodes or mini-terminals each capable of handling around 20 million passengers per annum.

However, Griffiths notes that Dubai Airports continues to modify and update DWC’s master plan, meaning that these plans will almost certainly change over time.

“Like in any long-term project, the master plan is always evolving and our thinking on the design continues to develop with new opportunities to create a more efficient interface between ground and air,” says Griffiths.

“The march of technology and processes also gives us the opportunity to re-think some of our infrastructure solutions. Everything is still very much in the melting pot as, what we don’t want to do, is build an airport facility that is out of date the moment it comes into service.”

His airline background – Griffiths has actually spent more time working for the airlines in his career than airports having previously worked for Virgin Atlantic and Dragonair – also ensures that he is in regular dialogue with the airlines serving Dubai, and not just home carriers Emirates and flydubai, about Dubai Airports’ plans to develop DWC and, indeed, DXB.

“We are only here because of our airline customers, so if we are not making them happy by the things we do, there’s a problem with the way we are doing business,” comments Griffiths, who notes that he spends a lot of time building relationships with the airlines.

“I think it’s invaluable to have been on the airline side of the fence as I understand their challenges, and this has helped us create a master plan that suits their requirements rather than just the needs of the airport operator,” he adds.


Future priorities

Griffiths says that the company’s focus now is very much on how it can increase the throughout at DXB to 120mppa and how it can develop Dubai as a two-airport system.

“By 2023 we will be capable of handling around 146 million passengers per annum across two airports in relatively close proximity to each other, so managing growth remains the major priority,” reveals Griffiths.

“Creating a level of service quality that is second to none, is an equal first priority. We also need to ensure that we operate an airport system that allows DXB and DWC to work in harmony with each other and be flexible enough to make the best use of our infrastructure.”

And it is clear that the two-airport system will be around for many years to come as it will take decades to fully develop DWC, and even then, both airports could still operate in tandem, only with the roles reversed and DXB supporting DWC and not the other way around as it is today.

“We are doing all we can to extend the life of DXB, so perhaps the best way to look at the long-term future is to say that we have started an extensive transition to the new airport and that the second phase development of DWC will give us the option to consider whether we close DXB or keep it operating,” says Griffiths.

Major highlights

Not surprisingly Griffiths states that the 2008 opening of Terminal 3, which basically doubled the size of the airport overnight, and Concourse D in 2016 as two of his major highlights of the last 11 years.

He also remembers the openings being doubly sweet for Dubai as the facilities were inaugurated without any of the “teething troubles” that dogged the opening of other high-profile terminals around the world.

Other highlights, he says, include the opening of Concourse A, the 2010 opening of Dubai World Central and DXB becoming the world’s busiest international airport in 2014. A title, incidentally, that it looks set to hold on to for the foreseeable future.

“It didn’t escape my notice that we overtook Heathrow to become the world’s busiest international airport,” notes UK-born Griffiths, who believes and hopes that it has showed Britain that it needs to “get its aviation act together” or risk losing traffic and trade to other countries that aren’t standing still when it comes to building new infrastructure.

Asked whether he is still enjoying his job, he enthusiastically replies: “What’s not to enjoy? I think there are two things that keep this job fresh and vital. The first is that every day is different, and the second is that no day ever goes as planned, so there are always surprises in store.

“The energy of the place [Dubai Airports and Dubai] and the focus on growth and service quality also fosters innovation that few other places on earth enjoy. I am also quite enjoying not having to deal with some of the heavy-handed bureaucracy that exists in some of today’s more mature aviation markets.”

Sound of music

Did you know that Griffiths’ first love is music and that he only chose a career in the aviation industry after his dad told him to give up on his childhood dream of becoming a full-time cathedral organist? When he told me many years ago that he played the church organ, I made a note myself to write something about it along the lines of the weird and wonderful hobbies of airport CEOs, however, I never realised just how good he was at it.

In fact, Griffiths is so good at it he has already played a number of organ recitals in the UK, including one in front of an audience of 2,500 people at Westminster Abbey.

And next year, in his words, he is going on a ‘Rolling Stones type international tour’ where he will play at three venues in the UK before heading for the US, Australia and New Zealand and playing at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2020.

“My dad told me that playing the organ was a great hobby but a terrible profession, which I didn’t really appreciate at the time, but he was probably right about my career,” laughs Griffins.

“However, I never gave up my love of music, and did all my exams, entered a few competitions and eventually got on the recital circuit, which has allowed me to combine my love for aviation and music by running the world’s busiest international airport and playing the organ in some amazing venues in my spare time.”

With no end in sight to the upward trajectory in traffic, this success story is set to run and run, and the fact that Dubai’s airports are more than well equipped for future growth will be music to the ears of Dubai’s aviation leaders.


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