The future of airports – Paul Griffiths, CEO, Dubai Airports

The future of airports – Paul Griffiths, CEO, Dubai Airports

Dubai is in the midst of designing a new airport, exploring a completely different model – all enabled by technology. Is it the future for airports?

Dubai Airports’ CEO, Paul Griffiths, tells us more.

Paul GriffithsSo what's driving the need for a new approach?

When I think of my own personal journey, it began while talking with someone who ran an airport. I was working for an airline and asked how they viewed customer relationships. He said: “We see airlines as suppliers of our customers.”

That was when I personally realized that attitudes and approaches had to change; and I decided to move into airports.

I believe we’ve now reached an inflection point – we have to see major change in the industry’s supply chain if we’re to respond to what’s happening in the outside world.

What are these outside influences?

First, demographic shifts. We’re seeing a huge increase in mobility, even in some of the poorer developing nations, where people can now get on an aircraft and travel long distances at costs that used to be only comparable to car and bus journeys.

Second, it took thousands of years for economic power to migrate from East to West – but now we’re seeing a shift back to the East in a fraction of the time. Meanwhile, more people want to live in cities, and more people want to be connected. They want to gravitate to a socially developed environment and be enabled with each other.

Third, we have to deal with the impact of a constantly growing global population and our impact on the planet.

Finally, and underpinning all of the above, we’re seeing massive technological breakthroughs every day. It’s extraordinary when you see the creativity and inventiveness of the younger generation at the cutting edge of technology change.

All of these elements are changing the way we need to look at business and at this industry. Because if we don’t change, those who are driving this technological breakthrough will simply take the law into their own hands.

A new model

We’re exploring a completely different model, designed
around the physical limitations of a human body. We
want to create hubs that are manageable, navigable, and
easy for people to find their way through.  

Paul Griffiths, CEO, Dubai Airports

What’s the impact on airports?

In just 15 years we’ll see an additional 1.8 billion people traveling every year from Asia alone. So the creation and expansion of intercontinental hubs (which are created by airlines not airports) will continue to play a vital role.

Airlines will continue to need to connect networks to give people the ‘from anywhere to anywhere’ service they demand.

They’ll continue to find ways to create greater network efficiencies without falling foul of anti-trust and anti-competitive legislation, so long as rules prevent mergers across international borders.

Airports will need to make sure they invest sufficiently in cost-effective connection services to enable network efficiencies to be realized and to cater for increased mobility. Hubs will become hugely competitive, as more and more of the markets they serve become distributed globally.

Scale has always been important in airport development. Most airport managers are infrastructure managers. They build stuff, spending vast amounts of money, creating newer and bigger facilities to cope with growth.

In Dubai alone we’ve spent about US$ 13 billion in the last five years, creating major facilities to cope with the extraordinary growth that’s been happening. But how on earth can this continue?

Look also at the geographic limitations that have led to compromises in airport design. We’ve run out of space, but what do we do about it? Do we build ever bigger airports? In my view, no.

With bigger airports, you get bigger walking distances, less intimate experiences, and greater difficulties in customers making connections. Few statistics are more important than the ability at a connecting hub for passengers to conveniently and easily connect between flights. It’s also incredibly expensive. And remember, this is an industry that, over the entire supply chain, struggles to cover its costs every year.

All of this has created a big problem. More daunting scale, much longer walking distances, greater transit times, and crucially, more anxiety for our customers.

What’s the solution?

Every single individual that goes through an airport has a different need, because they’re a human being. We may be creatures of habit in general, but individually we have very, very subtle differences in requirements. Different levels of experience and confidence.

We must get used to the fact that people have advanced technology in the palm of their hand. That doesn’t simply mean that future airports should be developed with an infrastructure sufficient to handle all of the intelligence and technology needed to serve the customer. That’s far too expensive, and it’s not the way the world is progressing.


People want us to be far more customer-centric. So Dubai’s
aim is to seize this opportunity and turn it into something that
will drive the way airports of the future look like. 

Paul Griffiths, CEO, Dubai Airports

So what are the implications?

If people have that level of technology with them while they’re on the move, we need to think of ways to leverage that power to make their travel experience better.

Airport processes need to change, and fast. Take airport security. We need a technology breakthrough. We can now profile customers just by looking at their faces or taking their fingerprints.

We need to leverage that technology to take those processes out of the consumer’s way, and make sure they interact with the airport and the airline in a way that’s more pleasant, far more organized and far more connected.

If you take process out of the airport environment, you create space. And remember, the capacity of an airport is determined by the volumetric area you are deploying and the speed you can get people through.

If you double the process flow, you double the capacity. That’s far, far cheaper than having to double the area of the terminal building. There’s big potential for technology here.

And there’s a really good driver for this – it’s what our customers want. They don’t want to have to go through queues to check-in. They don’t want to have to go through all of the processes that we put in their way. They don’t want to have to present a physical piece of paper, in order to arrive in a country or leave a country.

They want us to be far more customer-centric than that. So Dubai’s aim is to seize this opportunity and turn it into something that will drive the way airports of the future look like. That means designing buildings in a completely different way.

What are you planning?

We’re in the midst of designing a completely new airport. It’s a massive 140 km2 site with an ultimate capacity of 240 million passengers a year. It’s 10 times larger than Dubai’s existing airports, but to ensure we focus on customer-centricity, we’re deliberately not building the same level of physical capacity as today’s standards.

Instead, we’re exploring a completely different model, designed around the physical limitations of the human body. We want to create hubs that are manageable, navigable, and easy for people to find their way through.

We’re going to build 12 airports, each of 20 million capacity. It’s completely scalable. We can start with four nodes at 80 million or six nodes at 120 million and gradually develop. Each node will be identical and completely self-contained.

This is all enabled by technology. We’ll use technology to optimize the allocation of flights, so we can connect as many people as possible through the same hub. That will dramatically improve the utilization of the airport, the connectivity – and create an environment in which no-one will have to walk more than 400 meters from one plane to the next.

Inflection point

I believe we’ve now reached an inflection point – we have to see major change in the industry’s supply chain if we’re to respond to what’s happening in the outside world.  

Paul Griffiths, CEO, Dubai Airports

Technology and business transformation at the same time?

Yes. It has to be enabled by huge integration of technology. Such as the technology of way-finding to tell people the shortest way to get from one plane to another, to give them the information they need to know about what’s on offer as they pass through the airport.

And technology that enables us to present an increasingly competitive hub-based product to the world, as airports become more competitive.

This program also drives business transformation. Disaggregation is the name of the game. We’ve got to get smarter within the supply chain between airlines, technology providers, airports and ground handlers.

No one has proprietary ownership of the customer. The customer will increasingly choose who they want to interact with, just as we have seen in other industries. Look at the Zipcar model – you just pay for the time you use a car. Look at the massive efficiencies in the supply chain in other business models such as Airbnb. Airports must have the same attitude to future technology.

Might handing power to the customer create new problems?

Possibly. We have to be very careful, but if we don’t do it, customers themselves will take control of the journey and it will be those who produce consolidated apps that will own that relationship.

We must whisk people through the airport without queuing, without wait time; entice them with the best possible commercial offers, and work with the airlines to make sure we’re using the journey in the air to tantalize people about what they can expect on the ground.

So our vision of the future is simple intuitive airport design on a manageable scale which can be replicated multiple times. It’s what customers want, it’s what airlines want and I believe it’s what everybody should want.

In a changing world, where things apparently need to get bigger and bigger, what we’re trying to do is make sure that we retain and enable the intimacy of the customer journey. Every one of our customers, from wherever they come in the world, will be able to do it their way.

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