Talk from the top: Paul Griffiths
Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports
As Paul Griffiths oversees the efforts of thousands of people working to build the next stage of Dubai’s impressive airport infrastructure, he can reflect that it was a far humbler project that first sparked his interest in transportation. A train set to be precise.
The Dubai Airports chief executive says his father rushed out to buy the gift just hours after his son’s birth. Suitably entranced, Griffiths knew from an early age that he wanted to be involved in an industry that’s truly going places.
“Anything that moves, anything that is capable of self propulsion, has always been a source of fascination,” he tells 7DAYS.
Griffiths is no slouch when it comes to self propulsion himself. He spent 14 years working at close quarters with famous British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson as a board director of his Virgin Travel Group, which included the company’s airline and rail network interests.
Of Branson, Griffiths says: “I went on holiday with him and his family and I had that really close rapport with him professionally. Personally, I am still great friends with him.”
In 2004, Griffiths left Virgin to take the reins as managing director at London’s Gatwick Airport, the second largest airport in the UK.
When he agreed to become the first CEO of Dubai Airports back in 2007, he says he saw it as a “new chapter.”
“We decided that we would only arrive with a couple of suitcases and we would just build a completely new life.”
During his time in the job he has spearheaded a strategic review of Dubai’s airport needs.
“When I arrived the story was very much that Dubai International had reached its peak,” Griffiths says. “It probably could go to about 60 to 65 million passengers a year, but all the investment of the future was clearly going to be in Dubai World Central,” he adds, referring to the huge new airport project being constructed at Jebel Ali with the aim of serving 160 million passengers a year.
Following the debilitating effect of the global financial crisis on Dubai, Griffiths says the cash demands of building the new airport to meet its original schedule suddenly looked less appealing.
So, a strategic plan developed by Griffiths and his team took another look at Dubai’s existing airport - and what they could do with it.
“We basically said ‘what can we get out of two runways and the amount of space we have got?’,” says the British national.
“And we reckon that by 2018, we can get 90 million out of this airport. Which crucially gave us a lot more time to build DWC on an incremental basis and to be able to make the transition at a later date,” Griffiths explains.
Dubai International is expected to serve 58.6 million passengers this year. That’s about 100 a minute.
But will such a bustling hub eventually be closed if the emirate boasts the world’s biggest airport in Jebel Ali in the coming decades?
“I can’t see a situation where suddenly this place closes down, because the investment here is astonishing and it is fairly recent as well,” Griffiths says.
“However, the difficulty of course, is in operating … imagine having Heathrow and another airport on the same scale just 35km away and operating both of those in parallel in the same airspace. It doesn’t quite work.”
The solution, he says, will be a complementary approach to air traffic, sharing the load between a larger and a small airport in the same way as is common in many major cities.
In the nearer term the next step to meeting these ambitions will be the opening of Concourse 3 - the new facility that will exclusively serve Emirates’ two-deck A380 aircraft - in the first quarter of next year.
On a day-to-day basis, Griffiths is keen to find ways to make flying to or through Dubai as satisfying an experience as possible.
Currently he says he is working with immigration authorities to find ways to reduce queues at passport control.
“Whenever I leave my office, I have always got my customer eyes in,” he insists.
“Because the mindset of the customer, on arrival certainly, isn’t about the ambience and how nice it is, and how flashy everything is. “You get off the plane and a successful airport to me is measured by the number of minutes between getting off the plane and being in the car and gone.”
And that’s a challenge that has long motivated the Dubai Airports boss.
“It goes back to that same thing about the train set - you are joining all the pieces together.”