Q&A: Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths
Al Maktoum airport, economic slowdown, transport links and the future
Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths chats to HotelierMiddleEast.com's Sarah Cowell.
There have been many rumours about when Al Maktoum Airport will open. Can you set the record straight?
It’s dead simple and very understandable. Phase one - a nine million passenger terminal - is opening in June 2010. We will have our operational licence by then and we are already talking to airlines about who will be the first customers for that terminal. There will be two major phases. The first one is the first runway, but we will end up with five runways and the capacity for 160 million passengers per year.
When will phase two be completed?
The reason [we can’t give a timeframe] is not because I don’t know how long the programme is; it’s because we have an interesting conundrum [in terms of balancing the growth/development of both airports]. The current airport capacity (Dubai International) is 60 million and we are working to increase that, but simultaneously we are investing in the new airport and bringing capacity up to 80 million with concourse three. So the capacity of both airports combined when finished will be 240 million.
Will both airports stay open when completed?
That’s not today’s decision. We will evolve the strategy over time – it really depends on the support and development of the new airport. The good thing is that having two airports gives us flexibility.
What kind of customers are you targeting for Al Maktoum International?
Commercial passenger operators, cargo operators, low-cost airlines and executive aviation – just like a normal airport. We are hopeful we will be able to target new start-up airlines – there are some significant opportunities.
Will Emirates Airline move to the new airport?
In time we expect Emirates to move to the new airport but we need enough capacity. Emirates Airline has 20 million passengers annually so we won’t be able to accommodate the airline until a substantial amount of phase two is completed.
Who is likely to move in first?
The early candidates are likely to be cargo operators that don’t depend on freight and airlines with predominantly point-to-point traffic. We also expect to receive executive aviation operators with a catchment area of Jebel Ali and Abu Dhabi, as well as aircraft that use Dubai as a tech stop. There will also be room for low-cost airlines that want an unconstrained hub. It’s interesting because Al Maktoum will take in a completely different catchment area to that of Dubai International.
How has Dubai International performed during the economic slowdown?
Well, we had four new airlines start operations in the first quarter plus some carriers such as Emirates started additional services. Passenger traffic in the first quarter saw growth of 2.3% compared to the first quarter of 2008 and if you look at the top 10 airports (in terms of passenger traffic) in the world, Dubai Airport (which is number six) was the only airport to report positive growth. Number one, Atlanta, which carries 89 million passengers annually saw negative growth and Seoul airport saw a growth decline of 15%. This has proved that things are going well for us.
What have you done to stop transit passengers (with smelly feet) loitering in the terminal and lounging around making the place look untidy?
[Look of shock] We have had some problems with visas in that people were forging them and then these people were hanging around the airport and lying on the floor. So we have made it the responsibility of the airline to make sure passengers have a visa and if not, they have to fly them back. We have created a separate lounge for transit passengers and we feed and shower them. We want to eliminate the problem.
How will Dubai’s new Metro system (set to open on September 9) improve the customer experience at the airport?
We hope it will have a significant impact for passengers and staff. We would love to do a park and ride and are talking to the RTA about this. We are in constant discussion about improving the roads around the airport. We really need a system that will bypass the airport for those not travelling there.
Will there be a train line linking the two Dubai airports?
We don’t expect a huge amount of traffic to flow between the two, but in time, we will make a rail link. What I would really like to see is a pan-Emirates high-speed railway and we are strongly supporting a rail project of this kind – it would stretch from Abu Dhabi all the way to Ras Al Khaimah with links on the way. It’s being discussed at Federal level but there is a problem in that it’s not invented here [and therefore there is not as much interest as if it was a new concept].
Were there really thousands of cars dumped at Dubai airport when the recession kicked in earlier this year?
There are always a number of cars abandoned at the airport but we haven’t seen an increase in numbers. It was a sensationalist story. If there were 3,000 Mercedes outside the airport I would be a car dealer by now!
What is the most difficult part of your job?
I think the thing is that what we are doing today is building the capacity of this existing airport to 80 million and [taking steps to] dramatically improve the level of service we provide, while at the same time, building the world’s biggest airport and the world’s biggest infrastructure project. To do that well we need to really empower, motivate and train our staff well. We want to equip the next generation of leaders with the skills to be able to run these projects without the help of myself or external influence. Already, 70% of my management team is Emirati and we don’t plan to diminish that. At the moment, I feel like I am working on a very difficult jigsaw and I’ve been given all the components to fit together, but no one has given me the box with the picture on the front so I know what it looks like.