Paul Griffiths is chief executive officer of Dubai International Airports, which has the mandate to operate both Dubai International and Dubai World Central-Al Maktoum International (DWC-AMI)
You are the first ceo of Dubai International Airport. What was the arrangement before you arrived?
The reason for this structural change was that the business had to make a giant leap forward to be able to cope with the amount of growth that had happened and was projected. The airport has only been around 50 years. Most of the growth to the 38 millionth passenger, which takes us to sixth place in the world in terms of passenger throughput, has happened in the last ten years. We need to look at the structure of the organisation to create a very fit organisation able to take the airport to its 80 millionth passenger by 2018.
When you started, what were the priorities?
There were three major challenges. The first was to map out a strategic plan for the future of both this airport, Dubai International, and the new airport at Dubai World Central. The second was more pressing: to make sure our beautiful Terminal 3 opened flawlessly and achieved all of its goals. The third was to address the corporate structure and get the right balance between the training and development of existing staff and the injection of expertise to help transfer the knowledge to the people who will ultimately run the airport for the long term.
Terminal 3 opened successfully. How was this achieved?
Early on in 2008 we took stock and asked "Is it feasible we could have a flawless opening of T3?" I came to the conclusion that we were rushing into a May 2008 opening because there was a fear that Terminal 1 would not cope with the demands of the summer peak. There was also a general impetus to get the thing open, do a big bang and rush forward. But I thought if Terminal 1 can't cope, let's see if we can look at making it cope to buy us some time, so we did a lot of flow improvement, passenger service, quality uplifts, forecourt management and brought in 250 "May I help you staff?" to help speed passengers through the process, so we could deliver much better performance in Terminal 1 in terms of baggage delivery, on time performance, lack of crowding, lack of queuing etc...
I looked at the fundamentals of what the strategy for the opening should be, and I had three observations. The first was, "Why have a big bang?" Hotels don't do big bangs, why could we not progressively move the Emirates operation into the terminal and be absolutely sure that everything was going well and had a chance to recover. The second thing was that I also thought why would we want to run the risk of under-promising and under delivering by taking double page spreads, "Coming soon, best terminal in the world" and then have a lot of negative press when we failed. So we deliberately kept a low profile. Under promising and over delivering is more productive. The third thing was we wanted to make absolutely sure every single person was prepared and understood their part and really believed in making this a success. So we spent a lot of time in stakeholder engagements, trialling our systems, we had thousands of members of the public involved in trials of the departure process, transfer and arrivals and only when we were satisfied that all of the items were in place, had been indecently tested and were operating to a level of quality that we thought our customers would be pleased with did we press the button.
We opened it in four phases - with regional GCC flights, then America and Europe, then the Indian subcontinent and then the rest of the world. And we got to a point where Emirates was saying it's all fine let's do the last two in one, but we said no, let's make sure. And as a result we had a completely flawless opening.
T3 has enabled us to increase from 35 to 60 million passengers. All of the Emirates operation which is over 20 million is from T3, and they use all of Concourse 2 and an increasing amount of Concourse 1. And no sooner had we constructed Concourse 2, Concourse 3 will be open by the end of 2011 taking us to 75 million (another 15 million) but it will also bring the number of A380 gates to 26 in total, which is enough to be able to cope with Emirates fleet order of 58. It will be the world's largest and only dedicated A380 terminal when complete in 2011.
There seems a real contrast here with Heathrow Terminal 5, which is still criticised for having too much shopping getting in the way of passenger movement. How do you balance the revenue you need from duty free with efficiency?
In the UK it is the cumbersome regulation that is the problem. You are forcing an airport operator to operate as a commercial business under a regulatory regime which doesn't encourage the right behaviour. It was the first privatisation in the UK and was very much the guinea pig for what the future could hold. I believe it's high time that was looked at again, and obviously the Competition Commission will fuel a debate about what the right regulatory model should be with a number of airports under separate ownership. I'd say that it has to be relaxed, there has to be a more productive relationship between the airport operator and the airlines. Our belief here is that we are a business to business entity providing a level of infrastructure and customer service capability to mirror the excellent services that the airlines that come here deliver in the air. We are primarily there to serve the airlines and facilitate the passenger experience that their customers have. Part of that is to put a range of retail and food and beverage facilities into the airport to complement that strategy.
If airports can concentrate on the basics of taking as much of the pointless processes of check-in out of the whole dynamic and continue to operate incredibly secure and safe systems not only in security but in immigration and customs, and converge them, concentrating on decent passenger experience, all this argument will disappear. If the passengers are having a better experience they will use the airport more often, therefore they will use the airline more often, everyone gets more revenue, we get more opportunity to invite them to buy duty free goods and have a coffee or something to eat while they are waiting for the flight to depart.
This should not be hard, but it's the cumbersome, outdated regulation that encourages the wrong behaviour. And the real problem is if you've got a monopoly operator operating in a regulated environment customer service and the needs of the customer are never going to be at the top of the agenda.
So what competition has Dubai International got?
In the big picture we are competing with every major hub in the world. We are facilitating an air transport infrastructure that enables airlines, particularly our home carrier, Emirates, to be ultra-competitive, so they can pick up a passenger in Newcastle, bring them to Dubai, give them an extremely efficient and effective transfer system which is pleasant and efficient and allow them to go to Sydney and Melbourne or anywhere beyond Dubai. So we facilitating a huge migration away from the assumption that you have to first travel to the main airport in your own country. And in that we are competing with all the world's major hubs.
How do you gain a competitive edge?
When I arrived it was absolutely clear that we had got to the end of the life of the particular corporate structure we were operating in and we had embarked on a decision to corporatize the organisation out of government. So we had to have a complete restructure, identify all the core skills required to manage the airport in a new way, introduce a performance management system, a rewards system and empower a significant number of people to make decisions when they couldn't in the old structure. A lot of people say Dubai is good on infrastructure but not on service, and we want to turn that around and make ourselves the best in the world.
Customer service is hard because in the airport space it's very difficult to get a consistent product and service delivery style. You've got stakeholders who don't see themselves as being in the customer service business. Police are there to provide security, immigration is there to make sure no one crosses the border illegally - they don't see customer service as their primary role. Yet to any airport it is the biggest and most difficult challenge. You then add an environment that has a huge breadth of different cultures, nationalities, beliefs and you've then got a complex model that certainly hasn't one easy answer. That's the change we've got to spend a lot of time on because if we get it right it would be fantastic. But I've a very committed and enthusiastic team: 70% are Emirati nationals and I'm really enthused that we will build an airport management system for the future that the facilities suggest we can deliver.
When will the new airport open?
The new airport will open in June 2010 with the first runway and terminal and will be able to handle nine million passengers. We expect that airport initially to take some of the heat of the peak traffic off DIA by taking some general aviation flights, some executive aviation, some of the cargo flights and some of the passenger aircraft, but because of our very liberal open skies policy we are optimistic that it will attract new carriers who will want to establish new operations and we are talking very actively to new carriers and are optimistic we will get some low cost operators in there.
The second phase is to start the new runways and take it up to 160 million passengers and 40 million tonnes of freight - gradual process - simultaneously investing in capacity of Dubai International with the aim of creating enough capacity to make sure we don't run out of the capacity of the two airports. We don't need to make a decision about 240 million spread across two airports, three times Atlanta, the world's largest airport right now. Whether we get to that size in short order would be an interesting discussion. There will be a role for both airports, but whether we continue with two airports forever is not something we need to decide now.