Reaching for the sky

Aviation is becoming increasingly important to the emirate, according to Dubai Airports’ Chief Executive, Paul Griffiths. Leonard Stall, Editor-in-Chief of Vision, reports

In early 2011, Paul Griffiths confidently told Vision that Dubai International (DXB) would power past the 50 million international passengers a year mark, and that it would inevitably, in time, displace London’s Heathrow as the world number one. Five years on, and the Chief Executive of Dubai Airports has 80 million international passengers within his sights. “We are certainly making our mark on the world,” says Griffiths, who joined Dubai Airports in 2007 as its first Chief Executive after working as Chairman and Managing Director of London’s Gatwick Airport, and spending more than a decade with Richard Branson’s Virgin Travel Group.

On the journey to date, DXB has won a host of awards and, most recently, Griffiths won the prestigious CAPA Asia Pacific Airport CEO of the Year.

When Vision first interviewed Griffiths five years ago, DXB was fourth on that list of airport giants for international passenger traffic, having just nudged past Frankfurt. Dubai ended 2014 by finally overtaking Heathrow to reach the top spot, and the growth since has been relentless. 

Nor are there any signs of a slowdown, with aviation set to become increasingly important as an employer and to the overall GDP of the emirate. “You couldn’t pick a better geocentric location than Dubai,” says Griffiths. “Two-thirds of the world’s population lives within eight hours’ flying time, and one-third within four hours. It’s a phenomenal intercontinental hub.” 

With a prediction that there will be 1.793 billion more passenger journeys from the Far East by 2034, the spotlight will stay on the extraordinary potential for Dubai’s aviation sector for years to come. Much of the success to date is down to the leadership’s focus on this sector, and its clear strategy, according to Griffiths. “Since aviation began in Dubai, there has only been one strategy – to facilitate growth,” he says. “We are here to boost the gross domestic product of Dubai and to continue to grow a network, which means that anyone who wants to come here has the option to do so by an ever-improving product and service, using a network that now encompasses more than 260 destinations. It’s one simple strategy, and that’s quite refreshing – and unusual – in aviation today.”

The passenger and airline audiences are probably ones he would not have expected to be addressing when he was a youth growing up in London. Griffiths’s life was on a wholly different flight path when he was 10 years old. As a boy he developed a lifelong passion for playing the organ, still central to his life outside work. He performed at national competitions and later became a fellow of the Royal College of Organists. 

Using organ terminology, Griffiths will have to ‘pull out all the stops’ to ensure Dubai Airports’ infrastructure keeps pace with demand, allowing the emirate to stay on track and deliver its spectacular aviation growth targets. By 2020, analysts expect aviation to contribute around US$53bn to the local economy, about 37.5 per cent of GDP. Look even further into the future of Dubai and the latest estimates suggest that by 2030 the contribution of aviation will have risen to US$88bn, around 44.7 per cent of Dubai’s GDP, 35 per cent of total employment.

He has already overseen a series of remarkable infrastructure developments during his eight-year tenure. “We have opened Terminal 3, Concourse B, Concourse A, the extension to Terminal 2, and we are about to open Concourse D. We have resurfaced both of our runways at DXB, without closing the airport. And we have also opened Dubai World Central (DWC), first for cargo in 2010, and then the Passenger Terminal three years later.” On its own account DWC will become the world’s biggest airport project, a next-generation airport covering 56sq km and destined to accommodate up to 240 million passengers a year.

“It might sound a fanciful number – when you consider we are right at the top of the game already with international passenger traffic – but the modular design of DWC is such that instead of building one gigantic airport, we are conceiving it to be on the scale of 12 different airports of 20 million each.”

Since most people don’t want to – or cannot – walk the increasingly long distances of some of the newly opened mega-airports, his vision is to break everything down into smaller units and bring the aircraft closer to the passenger, so passengers never have to walk more than 400 metres. 

“We want to build an underground system that is fast, effective and that goes round in a loop. You get off at a concourse that takes you vertically through the infrastructure and allows you access to the aircraft within a 400-metre walking distance.

“We are talking about ultimately having 12 stations in that loop. The idea is that you enter the loop – if we can succeed in the design of this – from Downtown Dubai. You will check in before you get on the train, probably before you leave home or your hotel, and in a paperless environment, where your iris or unique identifier will be electronically encoded. You will be able to walk straight on to a train that takes you directly to any one of the 12 concourses. When you get off the train you will simply go up through vertical circulation, ending up in a lounge, which is very close to the plane itself.”

Griffiths enthuses about the ever-increasing role of technology in the airport’s operations. And a smart approach is one that he believes is going to be essential in future. 

It is not hard to envisage interactive signing via smartphones guiding passengers, who don’t read English or Arabic, to their flights, he says. But smarter baggage collection is also high on Griffiths’s agenda. 

“The worst element of any arrivals process is baggage collection. I think we do a pretty good job of it here at DXB, and you don’t generally have to wait very long for your baggage. But standing by a carousel waiting for your bags, and playing the guessing game of ‘which bag is mine?’, is all a bit low-tech,” he says.

“In future it will be smarter. I would like to see a linear process whereby you step on to a moving belt and your bag emerges where you are: it finds you and matches you up with your bags.” 

Finding new smart solutions will also play a key role in helping Griffiths maintain sufficient capacity to accommodate the continued growth in passenger numbers. “It will take from eight to 10 years to get DWC phase 2 up and running. Dubai has never turned passenger traffic away in its history, and I do not want this to happen on my watch.”

He adds: “We are reaching an inflection point both in the business and at DXB where we have physically run out of space. To be getting nearly 80 million passengers through the airport now, and to get 100 million through by 2020, is a stretch. There are two ways of building capacity. Build, if you have space. Or try to minimise the ‘dwell time’ so we can increase the number of people passing through. We have to get smarter – doubling the flow rate is an objective at the moment. That’s the future of airport design.”