Forbes Middle East - - COVER STORY - Log on to www.forbesmid­ to watch the full video in­ter­view with Paul Grif­fiths.


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 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 qual­ity of ser­vice de­liv­ery, is vi­tal if we are go­ing to con­tinue to grow and ex­tend the 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

“Con­tin­ual in­vest­ment, not just in ca­pac­ity but qual­ity of ser­vice de­liv­ery, is vi­tal if we are go­ing to con­tinue to grow and ex­tend the mar­ket share.”

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.

Un­der Paul Grif­fiths, Dubai Air­ports has ex­panded and grown to be­come a re­gional avi­a­tion hub.

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