The world’s busiest airport for international passengers is not so busy on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-September. At least that is what it looks like from a partially screened glass airport for international window from Paul Griffiths’ first-floor conference room, located at the heart of Terminal 1 at Dubai International Airport. But the CEO of Dubai Airports is not complaining.
A report by the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs estimated that nearly 1.4 million passengers arrived through the Dubai Airports in the last two weeks of August, marking the end of the summer holiday period. In addition, officials estimate thousands more have transited through the airport daily. But the Englishman takes it in his stride. As the boss of the airport that handled close to 2.6 million items of cargo and recorded 408,251 flight movements last year, no day is alike. From finding live snakes in cargo to solving any problem that crops up airside, Griffiths’ daily challenges are different from what the average CEO might face.
“It is like running a city here,” quips Griffiths, 62. “You feel like you’re a mayor of a city when you’re running an airport because there are 90,000 people who work here and 280,000 people go through the airport on a busy day, so there is a huge amount of activity going on all the time.”
Griffiths would know. When he first joined the company in 2007, Dubai International Airport, with a single terminal, had just 34.34 million passengers annually. In 2014- roughly halfway through his 12-year-long tenure as the CEO - Dubai Airports welcomed the highest number (70.4 million) of international passengers that year, successfully establishing the emirate as an aviation hub. Last year, Dubai Airports received 89.1 million passengers, just 10 million from the 100 million mark that it has in sight.
In 2018, Dubai Airports also had one more milestone: it welcomed its billionth passenger in December. To put it in context, it took 51 years for the airport that was just a stretch of sand plot initially to reach 500 million, compared to the seven years it took to reach another 500 million passengers mark—all during this CEO’s tenure. Griffiths and his team followed it up with a rebranding this year that saw a new logo, which infused departures, arrivals and everything that Dubai Airports stands for. But for Griffiths, the rebranding is a lot more than just a logo change.
“The rebranding was a landmark in that journey to demonstrate that we wanted to be a vibrant fresh organization, that was much more about service and hospitality than it is about operating an airport infrastructure,” he explains in his pronounced British drawl.
The rebranding might well be indicative of a strategic shift from being number-centric to experience-centric in Dubai Airports.
Griffiths says that Dubai Airports is investing extensively in expanding its retail and hospitality offerings. The international chain, Hard Rock Café, opened an outlet there last year, while brands such as Gucci and Chanel line its terminals. The airport has also ramped up its entertainment offerings by organizing live shows put up by music artists. The only thing missing is probably a cinema to make the destination more appealing. “The idea is to have a complete quantum leap in the hospitality we are providing to visitors,” says Griffiths.
At Dubai Airports, Griffiths – who ranks first on Forbes Middle East’s Top 50 International CEOs Heading Local Companies – is considered to have had a major impact on the airport’s growth over the years. David J Bentley, Chief Airports Analyst at Centre for Aviation (CAPA), likens Griffiths’ impact on Dubai Airports to what late Sir Maurice Flanagan (widely credited for helping launch Emirates) had on the Dubai carrier.
But ask Griffiths, and he attributes the growth to Dubai’s leadership, to whom he seemingly has a clear line of access. An unmarked door next to his office belongs to Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the President of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority. Griffiths remembers how remarkably simple it was to clear a $7.8 billion expansion plan that he had drawn up for Dubai Airports. One morning, Sheikh Ahmed asked him whether he wanted to present that particular plan to Dubai’s ruler and the U.A.E.’s Prime Minister, and Vice President, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Griffiths went ahead, presented the plan, and following lunch, the Dubai ruler asked him to proceed. That made Griffiths realize one thing: “I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world where having the level of support from the highest order is as evident as it is in Dubai,” he says.
With approval in hand, Griffiths has overseen the expansion of Dubai Airports by opening new terminals and concourses, which have subsequently helped it secure the mantle of the world’s busiest airport for international passengers. “He has transformed the way the airport operates, integrating new technologies like e-gates for various passport holders as well as expanding investment within the airport facilities to showcase Dubai’s retail prowess,” says Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research. “The strategic efficiency that he has overseen in runway overhaul and repairs, both on time, on track and within budget, is no small feat.”
One way that Griffiths has facilitated capacity at Dubai Airports is through the use of technology. In the last few years, staffed immigration counters at the airports have led to automated systems, while the government is even examining technologies that would allow passengers to complete passport control procedures through facial recognition, all under 15 seconds. For his part, Griffiths says technology has helped cut the queue time by 25%, but he wants to digitize further and make Dubai Airports completely queue-less soon, eliminating all the points that passengers find particularly bothersome. Soon, Griffiths plans to introduce self-service check-in kiosks throughout the airport, putting in human agents only where necessary. Meanwhile, behind the scenes he has implemented realtimeDXB, a bespoke cloud platform that helps monitor airport operations and allow the team to respond to any major situations as quickly as possible, keeping airport operations seamless.
“We felt very passionately that if we were the integrators and the adopters of new innovative techniques, we could eliminate a lot of the things about the airport journey that customers hate,” elaborates Griffiths.
The technology could also be key in offsetting any clouds that might mar the skies in the regional aviation industry. According to IATA, the Middle East is the only region that saw a dip in passenger traffic at the start of the year before recovering slightly over the summer. According to an article by CAPA’s Bentley, Airports Council International pegs Dubai International Airport among the only three in the world’s top 30 airports to see passenger growth taper negatively in the first half of 2019. Mirroring the overall slowdown, a $36 billion expansion of Dubai World Central – the emirate’s second airport – is reported to have been halted until further notice. The airport, located in the fringes of the emirate, currently has an annual capacity of 27 million passengers but was eventually expected to become the hub for Emirates. Griffiths says that plan is still on but will be implemented on a longer timeline.
“What we found now the way technology has moved, we have been able to create the capacity and the surface quality requirements from the existing airport,” he explains. Ongoing investments into both infrastructure and technology have helped Dubai Airports significantly accommodate passenger growth for at least the next 10 to 15 years in the current location. Meanwhile, a longer time period will also help it generate sustainable revenue streams to invest cost-effectively in developing Dubai World Central, Griffiths clarifies. But a more serious challenge for Dubai Airports and Griffiths will be the emerging hubs in its proximity. Turkey just opened a massive airport in Istanbul and is significantly investing in Turkish Airlines’ route network. Meanwhile, Singapore’s Changi Airport is gradually reemerging in terms of passenger traffic. “The real challenge will come from the new Istanbul Airport when that is fully established (one year old in October),” says CAPA’s Bentley. “Istanbul is equally well situated to ‘hub’ global passenger traffic, many of the key Turkish Airlines routes are shorter so they can be operated more frequently and with smaller, less fuel-hungry aircraft.”
Griffiths is well aware of his competitor’s advantage. “Something like 47% of our traffic from our airport could use an alternative hub, and we are conscious that our continual investment, not just in capacity but the quality of service delivery, is vital if we are going to continue to grow and extend market share.”
It is during times like these that Griffiths’ years of experience come in handy. Previously the head of London’s Gatwick Airport, the Brit first started his long career in the travel industry with a tour operator before moving to occupy various positions in airlines, including a long stint in Virgin Group. Growing up, Griffiths wanted to be a musician but was drawn away from that career path by his father. So, after studying for a fellowship at the Royal College of Organists, he decided to pursue his other passion—one for all “things that move” including cars, trains, and planes.
As a child, he remembers driving to Heathrow along with his father to watch jets take off. “I found the whole idea of these huge machines being able to fly fascinating,” exclaims Griffiths.
In fact, it is a habit that he still harbors today. Every time he drives past Dubai Airports and sees an A380 superjumbo, the CEO is excited. “The feeling I had as a small boy still comes rushing back,” he confides, revealing a glimpse of his self that craves a dash of adrenaline.
Griffiths’ love for speed is not so secret either. His two Ducati motorcycles have often been the talk among media while he boasts of an enviable collection of motorcycles from the 1970s. But his choicest possession is not a car or a bike but an ex-RAF Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR.3 Jump jet that he acquired seven years ago and painstakingly restored to put on display at an exhibition in London. A love for airplanes is not a bad trait for an airport boss—a fact that Griffiths is cognizant of and is thankful. “It is not so much as a profession, more of an absolute obsession with the things I do,” he adds. “You can’t really give your best until you are completely passionate about what you do.”
It is this passion that Griffiths hopes will drive his efforts to prep the airport for a hallmark year as Dubai receives an influx of passengers for Expo 2020. In the coming 12 months, he hopes to drive both the transit and point-to-point passenger growth through Dubai’s expansive airport terminals. With Expo around the corner, Dubai is set to receive more point-to-point passengers and Griffiths is determined for Dubai Airports to make the best first impression to these visitors.
“We’ve got the opportunity to let people experience what we’ve got available here, and it is definitely the case if you come and visit and you experience it, (the country) exceeds people’s expectation by a significant margin,” the CEO says enthusiastically.
Rest assured, Griffiths and his team have firmly put in place plans to cement Dubai’s position as a global aviation hub.