Time for take off

Paul Griffiths will soon be running the busiest airport in the world, with another, even larger, facility waiting in the wings. He tells CEO Middle East how he is coping
Responsibility: Griffiths is involved in Dubai World Central — Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC), which will become the largest airport in the world with a capacity of 160 million passengers when it is completed.
By Courtney Trenwith
Tue 18 Jun 2013 01:40 PM

There are few CEOs in the world watching their figures rise and footprint expand as fast as Paul Griffiths. If there wasn’t so much work to be done to accommodate the unparalleled growth, he could seriously sit tight and simply watch the numbers climb unaided.

Since being appointed CEO of Dubai Airports in 2007, Dubai International Airport passenger numbers have doubled to 66 million and they are expected to treble by the end of the decade. Last year, Dubai International overtook Hong Kong International Airport as the second busiest in the world and it will easily leap frog London’s Heathrow by 2015.

The only thing that could stop this fast-paced growth is capacity, and that’s where Griffiths has his work cut out for him. Not only is Dubai International continuously expanding, Griffiths also is involved in the new facility, Dubai World Central — Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC), which will become the largest airport in the world with a capacity of 160 million passengers when it is completed.

With HH Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum declaring the emirate’s intention to double tourist numbers in Dubai to 20 million by 2020 and Dubai-based airlines Emirates and flydubai both vigorously expanding there is no end in sight for the aviation industry’s growth in the emirate.

In fact, as Griffiths reveals to CEO Middle East, Dubai Airports and the government are now looking beyond even DWC’s completion, to 2045. Barely a company or government in the world has such ambitious foresight.

“We’re now working on a master plan which will see how we can produce the right amount of capacity for Dubai’s aviation growth up to 2045, so we are thinking a long way ahead here, and there are plenty of options,” Griffiths says. “I think the sky’s the limit, really, as far as the possibilities are concerned.”

The final engineering and design of DWC are still being finalised and Griffiths says there is potential to complete the project before its forecast date of 2027.

“We’re working through the designs at the moment and I think the big challenge is, how quickly can we bring that to market,” he says.

“A bearing on that, of course, is how much that’s going to cost. So if we can actually design something that’s very efficient and we build with a relative simplicity of design and therefore it’s done at an affordable price and could be brought to market relatively quickly, who knows, we might be able to accelerate the programme.”

The first commercial airlines — low-cost carriers from Saudi Arabia, nasair, and Hungary, Wizz Air — will be the first to launch at DWC on 27 October. Griffiths is confident their successful operations will trigger a flurry of others to either relocate or establish their first Dubai base there.

“Airlines really don’t like being the first mover,” Griffiths says. “[But] when you see an airline go in and be successful, then you’ll find that we’re overtaken by a complete stampede of airlines wanting to be there.

“It’s interesting, just the announcement of the operation has led to some discussion which we’re now having with other airlines and we are approaching some and preparing proposals, so I’m hopeful that over the next few months we will be announcing that some more carriers will be operating from DWC.”

The first full-service carrier could begin operating at DWC next summer, he says.

Whether it will be one of the major players, such as British Airways (BA), Cathay Pacific or Qantas, who need easy access to international transfers, remains to be seen.

Dubai’s own airline, Emirates, is likely to be one of the last to transfer and that probably won’t happen for another decade, when crucial infrastructure has been developed.

“Emirates is in an interesting position in that the hub components of their traffic is incredibly important to their network strategy, therefore it’s incredibly difficult for them to split their operation,” Griffiths explains.

“We’re talking about having to develop a very significant amount of capacity to allow Emirates to move in one go. The last complete airport move of a significant hub carrier was when Cathay Pacific moved from the old Kai Tak Airport to CLK [Chek Lap Kok] in Hong Kong, and I think that airport [had a capacity of] about 23 million.

“We would be talking of having to create an airport capable of supporting between 80-100 million passengers [before Emirates could move], so that’s going to be quite a challenge to move that amount of traffic in one go.

“We can’t anticipate a move of Emirates until around the mid-part of the next decade — 2025, maybe 2027. But if we can accelerate the development of DWC then who knows, it could be slightly earlier.”

Once Emirates does relocate, the big question is, what will happen to Dubai International? So far, not even the government knows. “Fortunately we don’t need to make that decision for quite some time,” Griffiths says.

“We’re talking about an extremely long timeframe here because the current design capacity of the new airport is about 160 million and the question on our lips at the moment is: how can we construct it in such a way to make the transition between the two airports complete?

“Options that we’re currently studying include keeping the existing airport running in some shape or form. Other options are potentially closing it and transferring everything across to DWC.”

Griffiths says public transport to the new airport will be crucial to its success, as well as solving the country’s air traffic congestion concerns.

While Dubai is a global connection hub, with majority of air passengers travelling onto other destinations, 50-60 million people are expected to leave the airport and travel into Dubai each year once DWC reaches its full capacity.

“The reliance on road transportation has to be reconsidered because a fast airport link from the centre of town is really what’s going to make the difference,” Griffiths says.

“I think the RTA and ourselves need to sit down and be an integral part of the master plan, because any airport planner will tell you that the quality of the road and rail links to the airport are a very, very significant factor in being able to make the airport quick and easy to use.

“In Hong Kong it’s an absolutely integral part of the airport design and I think it’s got to be the same here. If you are talking of an airport of say 160 million at DWC, of which 60 million would be origin and destination and then there is a stated desire to increase the number of passenger visitors to Dubai to 20 million, the logistics for that being reliant on the current road network are going to be pretty challenging.”

While an extension of the existing Metro Red Line, which finishes less than 10km from DWC, is important, heavy rail will be needed before the airport can reach full capacity, he says.

“Without rail being part of the solution it’s difficult to see how that can work effectively,” Griffiths says.

“I think even the RTA understand that [the metro extension] is a fairly light rail solution and would probably not be ideal; you can’t handle the element of baggage that proper rail express product can handle and I think in the future the integration of baggage handling into the customer experience — you can check your bags in before you leave the station — will be very much part of the design.

“So I think there’s going to have to be some re-thinking about how the rail-air interface works in time for the new airport. [And] it’s going to be needed pretty much at the outset if we are going to talk about the transfer of the Emirates hub.

“One day it would [also] be fantastic if we could get a fast rail link linking not just the centre of Dubai but also Abu Dhabi to DWC; that would be a great thing to have happen and I think would speed up the economic growth of the whole of the UAE.”

Meanwhile, back at Dubai International, airlines are becoming more and more vocal about the seemingly little effort being made to ease air traffic congestion in the emirate, which has become one of the greatest bugbears of the entire aviation industry.

The problem in Dubai is exacerbated by growth in air travel across the Gulf, including in neighbouring Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. And it’s only going to get worse as countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar open new airports that are under construction, with passenger expectations also well above 100m each.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates Middle East airlines will see traffic grow by an average 5.8 percent each year to 2.3 million aircraft movements by 2025, above the global average of 4.6 percent. The UAE would reach 1.13 million flights by 2020 and 1.63 million by 2030.

About half of the Gulf’s skies also are restricted zones due to military security.

IATA CEO and director general Tony Tyler recently said the congestion had the ability to strangle the region’s aviation growth. “The Middle East region must avoid the inefficiencies that we see in Europe. In the Gulf, air traffic management issues are already nearing crisis levels,” he said.

“It would be a shame if the potential of the investment in ground infrastructure was held back by a lack of progress in the air. If congestion problems are allowed to grow they can quickly turn unmanageable.”

For Griffiths, it is an additional task that he should not have to deal with. He says congestion at Dubai International is “getting close” to crisis point and passengers already are experiencing air traffic control-induced delays.

“We would rather not be in the position that we are in now; it’s starting to have an impact and I would like to see faster progress to make sure that the capacity issue is addressed before it gets worse,” he says.

Airports have improved air traffic control systems but the real solutions are in the hands of governments.

“There are discussions going on as to how to harmonise [air traffic] more effectively within the UAE, but these negotiations at governmental level are taking a long time to mature,” Griffiths says.

“We really need to raise that agenda to the top of the pile and start to think not just about the UAE’s harmonisation of air traffic control capacity, but also the need to look beyond, to Oman, to Bahrain, to the adjoining countries, to Iran, to see if the air traffic control capacity can be made more effective and efficient.

“The problem is, as air travel continues to grow here you’ll get a situation develop where it’s going to become increasingly difficult to sustain linear growth if you haven’t got a step change in the way air traffic control systems are managed so I think it’s the biggest strategic threat that faces the continued growth of air travel in the region.”

The Gulf is not the only area actively ramping up its aviation industry. Turkey has stated its intention to rival the UAE as an aviation hub, announcing it would create a new city on the Black Sea coast to service its newly announced third international airport after a 20 percent increase in air passenger numbers in the past year. The $9bn facility would have an initial capacity of 90 million and eventually 150 million.

But Griffiths is unfazed by the suggestion it could threaten Dubai’s plans.

“The numbers that are being bandied around, I heard were 120 million. We’re working on 160 million at DWC, and I also think that the aspiration in Turkey is slightly different from the Gulf,” Griffiths says.

“We see ourselves as an airport for the world, where we are facilitating the traffic coming through Dubai from North America to Australasia, from Japan to South Africa, from South America to India... we’re at the sort of cross roads to the world here and it’s long haul to long haul, essentially. Turkey’s aspirations are mostly about regional connectivity and being the sort of bridge between southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Western Europe and obviously the Gulf states etcetera.

“They do have ambitions to increase their stage length but if you look at the composition of [Turkish Airways’] fleet, they’re around short-haul destinations as well as long haul, whereas I think our average length is much, much more significant in Dubai so it’s a slightly different strategy, but I think their plans are very aspirational and they are certainly achieving very impressive progress in growth.”

There is no doubt that Dubai will soon dwarf London — long the European aviation hub — when it comes to air travel. While DWC and Dubai International are growing at a visible rate daily, Heathrow Airport is months from reaching its capacity with absolutely no plan for future growth.

When you’ve got such exciting prospects and seemingly nothing holding you back, it’s no wonder the 55-year-old would happily see out his career at Dubai Airports. After all, there’s little chance of bowing out on anything but a high.

“We’ll see; it’s not entirely up to me,” he says coyly.

“As long as I’m doing a reasonable job in the eyes of those who employ me obviously it would be great to remain involved. It’s always very satisfying when things are just sketched on paper, then you can actually touch and feel, and feel you’ve had an influence.”

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.