October Cover Story: Dubai Airports CEO has a new target to aim for

  • October Cover Story: Dubai Airports CEO has a new target to aim for
    Paul Griffiths was appointed CEO of Dubai Airports in 2007
  • October Cover Story: Dubai Airports CEO has a new target to aim for
    “Airspace capacity is the Achilles heel,” says Griffiths. “Unlike in the US and Europe, the airspace environment is very fractured."
Published: 7 August 2017 - 11:13 a.m.
By: Shayan Shakeel

It was as he was browsing forklifts at the Global Airport Leadership Forum in April that Aviation Business made plans with Paul Griffiths. Three months later on a Tuesday and on the first floor of the executive offices at Terminal 1, Dubai Airports CEO is punctuating conversations about taking over the world–in terms of passenger traffic–with his thoughts on music.

“It’s a very emotional experience, to understand what the composer intended when they conceived the work,” he says. 

“When you’re in a meeting and have several different perspectives, instead of banging on the table, you often just have to stop and ask what will help everyone achieve what their objectives are. That degree of sensitivity and the ability to put all those different emotions in the room and have the intelligence to bring them together, that’s the skill of a musician as well as of a businessman.”

Griffiths isn’t just the most important airport CEO in the land, but an accomplished organist. 

On 13 August he’ll be playing in front of 2,000 people at Westminster Abbey in London. It’s a concert he’s been setting aside time each day to practise for. And he uses lessons from the experience to explain how the complexity of building tiny incremental steps in strategy “is the same in music as it is in business.”

“What it takes to conquer a complex musical work is absolute focus on the outcome you are trying to create, which is usually hundreds of hours away from where you are at that point. You have to remember that understanding, interpreting, and managing technical and physical constraints, muscle memory, all sorts of things are all toward a very long-term goal. It’s very much the same with running an airport.”

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that behind Griffiths’ disarmingly unique perspective on bringing together harmony in music and aviation there isn’t a shrewd businessman who likes getting things done.


"Yes opinions matter, but when they are voiced and have no validity, authority, or impact on the outcome, then we’re just wasting everyone’s times. That doesn’t happen here.”


This year, Griffiths will have spent a decade at Dubai Airports. He’s grown Dubai International into the largest airport in the world by international passengers. 

“The most action packed 10 years of my life,” he says, have been made possible through short lines of communication where only opinions that matter count.

“Anywhere else in the world you’d have to pack people into a mini stadium to get through approvals,” he says. “People have to spend years and decades to make sure they are compliant and taking into account another view. I don’t think the world should be like that. Yes, opinions matter, but when they are voiced and have no validity, authority, or impact on the outcome, then we’re just wasting everyone’s time. That doesn’t happen here.”

As Dubai pushes the pedal on the next step of its evolution, Griffiths will rely on both his skill in orchestrating multiple moving parts, and his ability to speed through decision making, to bring together the kaleidoscope of airport operations into what might become the world’s biggest adventure in aviation potential.

Here’s the plan: Shift operations from the world’s biggest international airport to an even bigger one, while the largest airlines at both join forces, to push overall capacity from 90 million passengers to 240 million, and aviation to nearly half of Dubai’s GDP.

It’s an incredible undertaking, he acknowledges, necessitated by the fact that by 2022, Dubai’s primary airport (DXB) will have reached its limit at 118 million passengers. 

Landlocked and with a relatively modest airfield in terms of hectares occupied, “the challenge is that there’s very little space with which we can build the additional infrastructure that we require to expand beyond the current capacity,” says Griffiths. Hence, the need to move to Dubai World Central at Al Maktoum International (DWC). 

Moving to DWC is a gradual programme, he says. 

“We are discussing it with every airline to get their views and ideas on when might be the appropriate right time to move. Some might move sooner than others who move later. But before we move operations, we’ll need DWC to have a capacity of 120 million and eventually 240 million. Now that’s for 2050, but it will provide the crucial pathway to grow without limitation.”

There is an amount of ‘discord’ in the industry at the moment, but though Griffiths acknowledges “2017 won’t be stellar” and that he is “very relieved” about the travel ban being lifted, he isn’t put off by political turmoil in jurisdictions around the world that are affecting growth sentiment. He’s still bullish, in fact: “We continued to grow at seven percent, which is still good by global standards at the world’s top airports.” 


Did you know?
220,000: The number of passengers that pass through Dubai Airports’ gates each day


Meanwhile, Emirates and Flydubai have also embarked on a partnership that should create new challenges to overcome, but Griffiths isn’t sweating. “At the moment we haven’t got the visibility for what the future plans are for both airlines. But whatever happens, we’re ready,” he says.

So what keeps Dubai Airports CEO up at night?

“The first thought that keeps me up at night is how many moving parts there are to this,” says Griffiths. 

“We have 220,000 passengers coming in per day, and if any of those fail to keep moving, we could quickly lose the plot in terms of service delivery. So I fret over whether the 78 kilometres of baggage belts are going to keep moving, or if there is somewhere a hiccup in our logistical operations that could bring the entire airport process to a halt. That clearly would be a bit of an issue. However, we have over 1,000 engineers, a good group of stakeholders, and very loyal and committed front line staff dedicated to keeping everything moving. So, fortunately, I do have some reasonably good nights because nothing tends to go wrong.

The other headache, according to Griffiths is growing congestion in the GCC. Not because of the number of airports being built around the region; airport congestion, adding runway capacity and the availability of land aren’t a problem here, and neither is noise because of population density. It’s the airspace capacity.

“Airspace capacity is the Achilles heel,” says Griffiths. “Unlike in the US and Europe, the airspace environment is very fractured. Because they aren’t integrated, there are bumps in the road as one aircraft is passed on from one sector to the other. That eliminates some of the capacity gains that could be achieved with a single approach to air traffic control across the GCC which we would really support. So congestion in the air is much more of issue than congestion on the ground.”


“We’ve had a brief since 1960 to never allow any decision that would constrain the growth and quality of the aviation infrastructure as it develops to meet capacity challenges of the future.”


Griffiths is hoping Dubai’s unabashed love for technology will be the note that strikes a chord in Dubai Airports’ plans to scale new heights. And though incremental improvements yield great results, the maturity of tech breakthroughs have the potential to change the way airports are built, according to Griffiths. 

Griffiths is excited about all kinds of technology implications in terms of airport design, from driverless cars to even ultra-high speed transport systems. 

“We recently looked at a transportation system that could cut the travel time from Downtown Dubai to DWC from 50 minutes to maybe five or six minutes. That order of magnitude of change affects everything, even the way we design airports. Why would you not then build a station or terminal right in the heart of business bay where all the roads converge, do the check in at purpose built facility and then have passengers that jump in a pod that takes them to their aircraft in minutes? Bags are taken at the earliest point, returned when you reach your destination. It’s something we’re seriously considering,” he says.

Griffiths is also taking the leap in using technology to better manage airport throughput, effectively eliminating capacity constraints with how fast travellers are processed through an airport. 


Fast Fact
240 million: The airport capacity being targeted to go through Dubai by 2050


For instance, with 3D cameras in the ceiling, aided by another single camera with a heat sensor, Dubai Airports can now manage queues at the airport and send alerts beyond a certain threshold to instantly respond and resolve the problem. 

“What that also does is collect big data for us on when they build up, why and how long they last for, so that helps us find the potential solution to stop them from occurring in the first place. It’s tremendous new technology for queue management gives us the ability to make decisions about the deployment of resources, including trialling different layouts in arrivals and immigrations, using automated versus manual immigration processes to get capacities right.”

Dubai Airports is also planning to pioneer use of biometric technology. Launched in March, and expected to be complete next year, travellers will be able to pass through departures at Terminal 3 using even a selfie on their cell phones. “That is key to the idea of not stopping at the airport. If you have all that data and it is kept secure there is just no need to carry your physical passport. The whole travel experience will become much more seamless without the need to queue and produce bits of paper. It will make today’s travel process seem pretty backwards and onerous.”

Griffiths’ personality as orchestrator, and union with Griffiths the technology enthusiast will continue to drive how quickly the airport and its various stakeholders are able to adapt and conform to the plans required of Griffiths the businessman. 

“Influencing the supply chain is what I spend most of my time doing,” he says. Fortunately, his organisation can also count on a rather significant mandate. “We’ve had a brief since 1960 to never allow any decision that would constrain the growth and quality of the aviation infrastructure as it develops to meet capacity challenges of the future. This is why with 90 million people coming through we are investing more intelligently in creating the capacity and future quality that will fund aviation growth in the future.

“The UAE leadership understood that right from the beginning, that this city would only be as successful as its connections with the world-whether its aviation, logistics, telecoms or diplomatic relationships, or policies onthings like open skies,” says Griffiths. 

That also means he can rely on a certain forward-think Chairman, who himself is in pursuit of a vision. “Just a quick referral to Sheikh Ahmed will usually generate the support, enthusiasm and belief in changing things for the better. That’s why we are able to be so progressive here.” 

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