Top gun

Taking on the 'biggest job' in aviation is no easy task. But Paul Griffiths has adapted to his role as Dubai Airports' CEO following a brief confidence lull.


Taking on the 'biggest job' in aviation is no easy task. But Paul Griffiths has adapted to his role as Dubai Airports' CEO following a brief confidence lull.

When Paul Griffiths was asked to head Dubai Airports last October, he couldn't believe his luck. As an experienced industry figure, the British director had the credentials to oversee the emirate's existing and upcoming hubs.

But despite his aviation background, Griffiths admits being offered the industry's ‘most coveted' role was a big surprise. "Quite honestly, my first reaction was that running Dubai Airports, not just the international airport but building the world's largest hub, was probably the best job in aviation, so why on earth would they be interested in me?," he says.


After seeing the region, general optimism and sheer unbridled decision making power to get things done, I thought it [moving to Dubai] was too good an opportunity to miss

The initial reservations following his self appraisal quickly turned to intrigue. He agreed to talk with airport operator Dubai Civil Aviation and soon realised managing Dubai International Airport (DIA) and the upcoming Al Maktoum International was an ‘excellent' career move.

When I came out here and saw the scale of opportunity, as well as the people that worked here, there was a clear synergy between my aspirations and the government's thoughts on how an airport should be developed," Griffiths says. "After seeing the region, general optimism and sheer unbridled decision making power to get things done, I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss.

Having joined Dubai Airports as CEO in October, Griffiths had to adapt quickly to his new role. His first task upon arrival was to address internal issues that were undermining the organisation's efforts. While reluctant to elaborate, Griffiths admits people, processes and faltering third party relationships needed to be sorted before anything else.

To that end, he focused on "galvanising" the employees to ensure everyone across the organisation was working towards the same objectives.

Griffiths also established more open communication channels within the company and added experienced hands to the workforce. According to the airports' chief, making swift changes early on has increased efficiency and productivity.

The internal changes have also led to improved dealings with other businesses, such as Emirates Group.

"As a government entity, the ability to deal one-on-one with a commercial organisation that's clearly one of the most successful international airlines in the world is crucial. There had been a drift in terms of the relationship with Emirates, but it's moving in a different direction now and we're working together to achieve similar goals.

Dubai Airports' management may have helped establish greater efficiency, but a general restructuring across all aviation departments has also contributed. Last year, the Dubai Department of Civil Aviation (now operating as Dubai Civil Aviation Authority) was dissolved into several units, covering everything from air traffic and engineering projects to security and duty free.

Meanwhile, Dubai Airports was formed to oversee DIA and Jebel Ali-based Al Maktoum. For Griffiths, adopting a new structure was critical to the operation's long-term development.

The airport is an extension of government that was lumped in with air traffic services, regulation, aero political issues and traffic rights.

That model works when an industry is in its infancy, but once an airport has reached a certain critical mass it needs proper commercial management to deliver revenues and cover its costs.

An airport that remains a government department is usually accused of being biased and failing to act on certain customer issues that a commercial company usually deals with in order to survive.

The restructuring is about catching up with the modern world and showing that the airports company is a commercial entity, albeit wholly-owned by the government.

It's unclear whether breaking up Dubai's aviation body into separate entities has benefited the whole operation. But Griffiths insists his particular department is working more efficiently following an internal restructuring.


Some people make a mistake in thinking they can do everything and put themselves under huge pressure. My only priority is to get a team that complements my own expertise.

He adds making immediate changes to Dubai Airports' structure allowed him to concentrate on equally pressing matters. Indeed, before arriving in the emirate Griffiths knew his main objective was to oversee Dubai International and Al Maktoum International's development.

The plan was to increase DIA's annual capacity prior to opening the new hub in Jebel Ali. Both objectives appear to be on course, with the existing airport's US$4.5 billion redevelopment well underway. This summer, Terminal 3 is expected to open at Dubai International Airport, doubling the hub's capacity to 70 million passengers each year.

It's a significant increase, with millions more travellers needed to make the DCAA's investment worthwhile. But recent figures suggest the emirate's aviation authority will have little trouble luring extra passengers.

In 2007, passenger figures for Dubai International Airport climbed 19.3% to 34 million from 28.7 million the previous year. Moreover, traveller 5.

To cope with additional passengers, the DCAA is developing a second concourse which, like Terminal 3, is expected to be ready laterthroughput has increased at least 15% every year since 2001. Elsewhere, the airport handled 260,530 aircraft movements last year compared with 237,258 in 200 this year. Attention will then turn to constructing a third concourse once the new terminal is in operation.

Griffiths is confident the new terminal and Concourse 2 should be finished on time, although he admits both may go to the wire. "The new terminal is progressing well, although there's clearly an awful lot to do and we have a tough deadline to open it this summer," he says.

"Our challenge is to continue delivering growth at this airport at a speed that will not constrain Emirates' and other airlines' expansions. The question, once we finally run out of capacity here, is can we get the new airport at Jebel Ali up and running quickly enough to enable growth to continue unabated?

While overseeing DIA's development is demanding enough, Griffiths will have even less time to spare once Al Maktoum International opens. The $8.1 billion project, which forms part of a 140 sq ft development, will have six runways capable of handling all aircraft, including Airbus A380s.

The first runway, measuring 4.5km long, was completed during last year's third quarter, with plans to develop the remaining five underway.

Other features include a 91-metre high control tower, executive jet centre and cargo terminal. Once finished, the airport will be the world's biggest, according to project developer Dubai World Central.

It's a bold statement but Griffiths believes Al Maktoum International is set to overshadow all other hubs. He also believes both airports will be essential to handling Dubai's rising tourist numbers.

Griffiths: "We will need every single square inch of space to handle that capacity [some 190 million passengers across both hubs] in the coming years. The weather is very good for the majority of the year, there is no security or safety issues and the standards are high for tourists.

If you look at commerce across the region, with no taxes, and consider that a third of the world's population is within four hours flying time, all the stars are aligned for Dubai.

Installing a management team to oversee Al Maktoum International is in the pipeline. Meanwhile, a separate group of directors will be responsible for DIA's development, with both boards answering to Griffiths. It sounds an ideal set up, but Griffiths insists his workload will be just as strenuous when the new hub opens.

Managing two sides will be more complex than managing just one," he says. "But the idea is to build up enough expertise within the organisations so they can handle the operations themselves.

Nevertheless, while the pressure is on to ensure Al Maktoum lives up to its ‘world's biggest airport' billing, Griffiths appears relaxed. The British director is used to performing in stressful conditions, having overseen Gatwick Airport as managing director.

He also spent several years working closely with Sir Richard Branson at Virgin to develop the investment group's airline and rail businesses. During his time with the carrier, Griffiths was instrumental in establishing the company and, then later, handling the 50% sale to Singapore Airlines.

"I've always thrived on pressure, so I don't tend to get very stressed about things," Griffiths says. "I have a pretty diverse lifestyle and I'm able to thrash out my frustrations in the gym, go mountain biking or whatever takes my fancy at the time.

Some people make a mistake in thinking they can do everything and put themselves under huge pressure. My only priority here is to get a team around me, that complements my own expertise, to spread the workload around.

For Griffiths, such experience will prove invaluable once the new airport opens. It will also help when redevelopment work starts on the existing terminal at DIA. Indeed, while Terminal 3 and Concourse 2 are the main priorities, Dubai Airports is already planning to introduce more shops, restaurants and upgraded check-in facilities throughout the hub.

Other plans include improving safety and security, introducing more fuel efficient ground handling vehicles, and reducing take-off and landing times. Griffiths admits meeting all these objectives while overseeing the launch of a new airport won't be easy. But he is confident having the right people on board will help.

If we've got the expertise to get everything right, the sense of achievement from creating one of the biggest and best airports in the world will be reward indeed," he says.

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