“Growth will find a way to establish itself, and if it’s not at your airport, it will be at someone else’s” – Interview with Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports

Yuliia Moravej by Yuliia Moravej | Jul 11, 2024

Today, we sit down with Paul Griffiths, the highly successful CEO of Dubai Airports for over 17 years. Our discussion covers DXB’s remarkable rise to becoming the second busiest airport in the world, its growth trajectory, sustainability initiatives, and the challenges faced along the way.

Based on ACI World’s preliminary data, DXB became the second busiest in the world. This is a huge jump from the fifth. What stands behind this phenomenal achievement?

First of all, our global centricity is a big help. We’re within four hours of flying time for a third of the world’s population and within eight hours for two-thirds.

Secondly, the Dubai government has made aviation an absolute strategic priority. This support allows us to develop our industry more freely compared to many other countries where aviation is taxed and regulated. We’re really fortunate to have that kind of backing.

Additionally, the proliferation and growth of our host airlines, Emirates, and flydubai, has played a huge role. We’ve seen significant growth in regional destinations, now serving 240 cities worldwide directly from Dubai. This is a massive expansion. We now serve 100 different countries with over 90 airlines. There’s been tremendous growth and recovery since COVID-19.

Moreover, during the pandemic, Dubai gained a reputation as a very high-quality destination for visiting, living, working, and establishing businesses. This has led to a huge increase in the number of residents in Dubai.

All these factors combined have produced this successful phenomenon. Unlike other airports, we haven’t been held back by regulations that stifle growth. In other parts of the world, industry taxes, uncompetitive practices, and hurdles like visitor visa restrictions or additional taxes and fees are imposed. These measures are very counterproductive, implemented by governments that view aviation as a pariah to be taxed. Unfortunately, they stifle growth and ultimately constrain income rather than generate incremental revenue. When you make an industry uncompetitive, you stunt its growth.

We have not had any of these problems because the Dubai and UAE governments see the development of connectivity to and from the UAE as strategically vital for economic development. These are of some reasons why I believe we have been successful and will hopefully continue to be so.

Apart from benefitting from the geo-centricity of Dubai, DXB has increased its capacity considerably and plans to expand it even more. What are some lessons learned? What could you teach other airports experiencing a significant increase in traffic?

The first lesson is to invest proactively in creating capacity and ensuring that you are not constrained in growth. Growth will find a way to establish itself, and if it’s not at your airport, it will be at someone else’s.

We have implemented a proactive policy, continually investing in infrastructure and systems to create the additional capacity necessary to promote and accommodate growth.

If we had constrained growth by not investing, we would not have achieved our current size and scale. Looking back through the history of Dubai airports since 1960, we have never been limited by a shortage of infrastructure.

The second lesson is to ensure a positive attitude towards growth and development from your regulator, government, and local authorities. This is incredibly important. Many airports around the world are now stifled and frustrated in their growth aspirations due to local legislation around environmental concerns. I’m not suggesting for a moment that addressing environmental concerns is a bad thing. But when regulations unnecessarily stifle growth, it indicates that there is misinformation involved. The coordination between government and aviation policy needs to be very close.

How do you manage growth and sustainability agendas together?

We are continuing to invest not just in infrastructure for growth but also in our environmental initiatives. Our goal is to achieve Zero Waste to Landfill within the next few years (we are currently just over 60%). We’re working proactively to increase our photovoltaic power generation capability tenfold, aiming to cover nearly all the roofs across DXB with solar panels. This will allow us to harness the considerable sunshine in the UAE and use it for power generation, thereby reducing our electrical consumption. We’ve also invested significantly in replacing conventional electrical fittings with more energy-efficient alternatives and improving control of these systems.

We’re also exploring alternative fuels for ground-based transport. Our goal is to achieve a fully sustainable ground-based transport system, powered by either clean energy sources or pure electric power. We aim to phase out fossil fuel powered vehicles in our airside operations. To accomplish this quickly, we’re investing heavily in hydrogen-electric-powered vehicles.

We’re an active part of the global community exploring sustainable aviation fuels. My concern is that the global demand for JET-A1 is so enormous that sustainable aviation fuel production may not keep pace with the growth of the aviation industry worldwide. That’s a challenge.

Nonetheless, we are deeply committed to sustainability and are actively exploring methods to encourage our airline customers to operate the most sustainable aircraft when flying to Dubai.

The biggest challenge lies in addressing the environmental footprint of aviation itself. That’s where the sustainable fuel initiative comes into play. It is interesting to see what Singapore has done – they’ve applied a levy to their charges at Changi Airport to fund investments in a more aggressive role, which is a very commendable move. I believe the rest of the industry should consider adopting a similar tactic.

Speaking about non-aeronautical revenue growth and passenger experience – what are the projects happening now at Dubai Airports?

The majority of our investments are geared towards either fostering growth or enhancing customer service quality. Currently, we’re undertaking a significant refurbishment of our Concourse B, which will introduce brand-new facilities for customers, including greatly enhanced retail options, restaurants, and bars. We have a policy of regularly refreshing the brands available in our airports and embracing new concepts to ensure that we’re always at the forefront of introducing new initiatives and brands. This has always been a crucial part of our development strategy. Another project we are working on is in Concourse C, where we’re upgrading the gates to accommodate larger aircraft.

We’re considering a transformation into an open-gate airport, where almost all gates are open, which we believe will be a positive change.

There’s a lot happening to help us stay current and maintain a modern look and feel to the airports. We’ve recently opened a new Fortnum & Mason store, and we’re constantly innovating in our food and beverage offerings to ensure they’re modern and up to date. Cosmetically, we’re introducing a new immersive video analytics-based experience on the journey between concourses. This will involve projections on the walls around the transition areas, aiming to enhance the passenger experience compared to what it has been in the past.

Operationally, how do you keep your airports ahead of the curve? What are your main challenges today and strategic priorities for tomorrow?

It has been demonstrated, particularly during the events of this April (editor’s note: flooding in Dubai, heavily affecting airport operations), that when you reach a certain size and scale, especially in a modest operation where nearly all resources are utilized close to full capacity, any disruption can have a significant knock-on effect. Therefore, increasing investment in airport resilience is of utmost importance.

To achieve that goal, we are always proactively investing in new technology. We’ve introduced a significant number of new systems to streamline passenger flow. For instance, we’re heavily implementing biometric recognition for passport control and boarding. The aim is to adopt a “no red lights” policy, where passengers can move through the airport without having to stop to produce a passport or boarding pass. They can walk directly to their aircraft and only pause when they choose to.  Our intention is for them to stop at our bars, restaurants, and enjoy our retail offerings, rather than stop at passport control, security, or other check-in processes.

Investing significantly in improving the flow rate is our top priority. This not only benefits customer service but also greatly enhances capacity. By introducing automation, we can double the flow rate through the same facility, effectively doubling the available capacity. Investing in technology to increase flow rate and capacity is much more cost-effective than building a new terminal with the same effect. This represents a significant shift in strategy towards maximizing the use of existing facilities rather than constructing new ones.

Looking ahead to tomorrow, we’re reimagining what an airport of the future might look like. We’re going back to the basics and recognizing that airports serve as methods of transforming ground-based transportation into air-based transportation. If we were starting anew, we probably wouldn’t design airports in the same manner as we have in the past.

Our determination is to rethink the ground-to-air interface and bring people much closer to their aircraft. Currently, we’re fundamentally reconsidering the road and rail interconnections within airports, leaning towards building concourses that are directly accessible by landside transportation.

When you arrive at the airport, instead of needing to transfer to an alternative distribution system, the same distribution system that brought you to the airport can take you directly to the various airport terminals, allowing you to disembark very close to your aircraft. This will provide a huge convenience for passengers, as many airports have grown exponentially in size, increasing their walking distances linearly. These long walking distances can often be unpleasant and introduce unnecessary anxiety for travelers, which they should not be expected to endure. A fundamental rethink of airport design is essential for the airports of tomorrow.

Paul Griffiths, CEO, Dubai Airports

Airports are pioneering advanced air mobility. What the future holds for airports as facilitators between all modes of transport – what are your thoughts? 

We are proactively commissioning vertiports just off the current airport site. The aim is to provide us seamless and easy transfer for people who want to travel by UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) to their ultimate destination. Finding the “sweet spot” between being close enough to the airport to be convenient, but far away enough not to interfere with existing operations is a bit of challenge. However, we have found a site that will work, and we look forward to being pioneers of this technology.

I believe this technology will add another dimension to transportation in a vital way, bridging surface-based and aerial transport. If we can ride the maturity wave of this technology, this could significantly enhance existing airport operations. Many of us have experienced airports where the arrival process, baggage retrieval, and ground transportation journey have taken as long, if not longer than, the actual flight itself.

If we could streamline ground and surface transport options and make UAVs available, it would have a huge impact, especially in congested cities like New York, Amsterdam, London, and Frankfurt. Aerial-based transport would save considerable time by allowing passengers to skip over the congestion.

This technology needs to mature, but I am very optimistic about the continuous advancements in this sector. I believe we will see a workable and practical solution emerge in the near future.

We are in the hospitality business, not the infrastructure business.

Could you please name the top three main trends in the airport industry for 2024 and the coming years?

The first priority is managing your customers, not just your infrastructure. We’re in the people business, serving people. We are in the hospitality business, not just the infrastructure business. Infrastructure serves as a means to an end, which is delivering quality customer service. Ultimately, it is the passengers who determine the success of your airport.

Priority number two is to be proactive in investments in growth, including facility expansion and technology that enhances throughput. 

The third priority is to be very cognizant that sustainability will increasingly constrain aviation unless we proactively invest in measures that will make air travel far more sustainable. We don’t want aviation to be seen as the pariah of the transport industry, lagging behind other forms of transport in finding green energy solutions to eliminate their carbon footprint.

Could you share your perspective on the significance of being a member of ACI? 

The air travel community across the world functions as a system, where every journey has an origin and a destination. Consistency in the airport experience is something that we should strive for. As an organization, ACI has the power to bring people together and share ideas. When one airport demonstrates a successful initiative, ACI can effectively communicate and build consensus around it. The Singapore example of implementing a levy for sustainability serves as a very good example.

ACI possesses a strong voice to lobby against some of the more negative legislative forces across the world that could be problematic for the industry. Another crucial aspect is the research area. The Airport Service Quality that ACI operates is an incredibly powerful tool. It sets the standard and provides us with a relative measure of how we’re performing against the best airports in the world. It offers tangible KPIs and targets to aim for.

There are many advantages to being an ACI member that I could highlight. We’re glad to be a major part of ACI.

We’ve been in the top 10 busiest airports for the last 10 years now, jumping from number five to number two in the last year (for total passenger traffic), particularly when you put it in the context of recovery from COVID-19. It is a major accolade of which we were very justifiably proud.

“No two days in the airport industry are ever the same.”

Dubai International has been the busiest airport for the past 10 years, you have been the CEO of Dubai Airports for more than 17 years. Where do you find your drive and motivation?

The thing I really appreciate about my job is its dynamic nature. No two days are ever the same.

When I wake up in the morning and review my plan for the day, it often differs from what I actually end up doing by the time I go to bed at night. This does not mean poor planning; rather it reflects the incredibly dynamic environment we operate in.

I have an opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people.Top of Form I recall walking around the terminals during the April disruption, comforting passengers about the delays, assuring them that we were working to provide solutions as quickly as we could, and explaining exactly what was going on. As I mentioned earlier, this industry is all about people. I take pride in leading a very strong team, primarily composed of UAE nationals. This has been another rewarding aspect of my journey.

In September (2024), I will have been in this role for 17 years, which is quite a long tenure for a CEO of an airport. I believe there aren’t many in the world who have held their position for as long as I have. It’s been fantastic to witness the airport triple in size during my watch. When I arrived to run Dubai Airports after Gatwick, our passenger numbers were about 32 million. Now, the forecasts suggest we will exceed 90 million. The way we conducted business 17 years ago has completely transformed.

 It has been an absolutely fascinating journey.

Yuliia Moravej

Yuliia Moravej

Communications Manager at ACI World
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