Delivering the vision… Dubai International Airport

Dubai International has recently edged past Frankfurt to become the world’s fourth-busiest international airport, and is a key pillar of the global city that is Dubai. Now in its 50th year, annual passenger numbers are set to power past the 50 million mark. Vision talks to Dubai Airports’ CEO, Paul Griffiths, about the challenges created by exponential demand

I am sitting in the reception area of the Communications Department at Dubai International waiting to see a very busy man, Dubai Airports’ Chief Executive, Paul Griffiths. The walls are covered with award certificates. There’s also a large, full – and presumably expandable – trophy cabinet.

In 2010, Dubai International was voted the ‘World’s Best Airport’ at the Business Travel Awards. The top prize recognised Dubai International’s consistent delivery of quality customer service. The judges also considered achievements including the flawless opening of Terminal 3, the refurbishment of Terminal 1, and defying the global economic downturn to post the largest increase in passenger traffic of the top 50 international airports.

Griffiths says his experience in Dubai is as different as ‘night and day’ to that in his last role, running London’s Gatwick Airport. ‘Western governments do not seem to understand how important aviation is to growing an economy’

In January, Dubai International won further accolades: the ‘Best Airport in the Middle East’ in the Business Traveller Awards (for the fifth consecutive year), and the ‘Best Airport’ in a survey organised by eDreams.com, one of Europe’s largest online travel agencies. “The Dubai Airport won by a large margin,” said eDreams Chief Marketing Officer Mauricio Prieto.

The latest gongs coincided with the news that Dubai is the Middle East’s busiest airport, with passenger traffic rocketing upwards more than 15 per cent to a record 47.2 million travellers last year, and up from 40.9 million in 2009. Dubai now ranks fourth-busiest in the world in terms of international passengers. With a capacity of 90 million passengers per annum within its sights, it will not take many years for Dubai International to overtake London Heathrow.

“The world’s market is driving our expansion,” says Griffiths. “The airport provides a huge number of connecting opportunities, and we keep on expanding the number of destinations. We have increased the destinations served from 110 to 220 in just a decade.”

Today, there are more than 130 carriers operating at Dubai International, serving these 220 destinations on six continents. One-third of the world’s population, nearly two billion people, live within four hours flying time from Dubai International; 80 per cent within 12 hours. The airport’s Chairman, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, says Dubai is in the middle of the ‘new silk road’, the natural crossing point between eastward and westward routes.

“The future holds even greater promise,” insists Griffiths, citing plans to “build our infrastructure to support the expansion of Emirates and [budget airline] flydubai, and ascend the ranks of global aviation hubs”.

Growth plans include the new US$3bn Concourse 3 – in Terminal 3 – that will open at Dubai International at the end of 2012, taking the airport’s total capacity up from 60 million passengers to 75 million. Twenty new contact gates will be in this new Emirates Airline-only Airbus 380-dedicated facility, the size of 94 football fields.

Extending the life of Dubai International should allow the masterplan for Dubai World Central-Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC) some valuable extra time. DWC – 40km away at Jebel Ali – was declared fully operational this March, almost a year after opening for cargo operations. It is a logistical masterpiece that will become the world’s largest airport in the mid-2020s, and the region’s first integrated multi-modal transportation platform connecting air, sea and land. When complete, DWC will have five parallel runways able to service 160 million passengers and 12 million tonnes of cargo from the same facility.

“We need a new airport,” says Griffiths. “But there is an optimisation of Dubai International that will cost-effectively deliver the near-term capacity we need to accommodate the rapid growth.”

According to Griffiths, the key drivers for the growth of Dubai International come down to progressive, coordinated government policies which are pro-aviation; improving economic conditions; the extraordinary expansion of Emirates Airline and the emergence of low-cost carrier flydubai; and a liberal open skies policy – with no strangling taxes and no block to growth – that promotes market access to other international airlines. Dubai has also streamlined immigration and visa policies, making it easier for visitors to travel through Dubai, and to stay.

Of course, the geography of Dubai is important, and so too is the continued advance of aviation technology, with aircraft like the A380 and B777 ER shrinking the world.

“Dubai is in an increasingly strong position thanks to its geocentricity, and with aircraft now capable of flying for 16 or 17 hours,” explains Griffiths. “If you take a globe and look for the new ‘centre of gravity’ it would be here, or very close to here! We connect people from the world’s great cities."

The rise of Emirates Airline has been ‘hand in glove’ with the success of Dubai International. Saj Ahmad, an aerospace/airline analyst with FBE Aerospace, recently told the Gulf News newspaper: “The simple fact is that the airline has a superb product and it has a management team so perfectly in tune with the needs of the business, even an orchestra symphony looks a muddle in comparison”.

Late last year, Emirates Airline President Tim Clark said the 90 Airbus SAS A380 superjumbos it is buying for US$35bn won’t be sufficient to meet the carrier’s projected demand. The aircraft “are well spoken for and frankly, the way things are going for us at the moment, the 90 certainly won’t be enough.”

The challenge for Paul Griffiths as CEO of Dubai Airports will be to grow and not constrain demand. It won’t be easy. In addition to the mushrooming infrastructure requirements, the airport also requires an ever-larger skilled workforce to maintain the quality and standards that has set DXB apart, and won it so many prizes. “To meet our targets of being the largest airport in the world, we need the best airport team in the world,” he says.

Griffiths reveals that his experience in Dubai is as different as “night and day” to that in his last role, running London’s Gatwick Airport.

“Western governments do not seem to understand how important aviation is to growing an economy,” he says. “If you wanted to do anything at Gatwick it involved negotiating with many different stakeholders and consultative groups: the relationship with the airlines was usually adversarial and local councils were hostile to any expansion of the airport. Many of the locals were hypocrites. They loved the airport for going to their villas in Spain, but when they sat out in their gardens they'd complain!”

In Dubai the pro-aviation approach stems from a conviction that the sector can and does spur the economy, facilitate trade, financial services and tourism. As Griffiths puts it: “The government, industry, and consumers’ interests in Dubai are all aligned” – factors which will definitely encourage further exponential growth in the booming aviation sector over the coming years.