Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths believes aviation growth will be constrained unless airports decentralize and take the pain out of passenger processes.

“There’s got to be a complete reimagining of what airports really are,” Griffiths told delegates at the Aviation Festival in London.

He said the old solution of building more airport capacity no longer works, because it is capital-intensive, space-restricted and controversial. “I think we are going to face a situation where the growth of aviation globally is going to be very challenged from the airport side. I am not convinced it is possible to match growth in the air with the growth of physical facilities on the ground,” he said.

Griffiths likened the problem to a gas supply pipe. To handle more volume, you either need to make the pipe bigger, or speed up the flow. If expansion is not an option, doubling the flow rate could double throughput with the existing infrastructure.

When it comes to airports, customers are happier when they pass through quickly, he said. This means the industry needs to be “very respectful” of a passenger’s time at the airport, because they do not want to be there and are typically in a “frenetic rush.”

“We need to find a way to get rid of a lot of the legacy process in airports,” he said, listing check in, immigration and more streamlined and effective security as key targets. “Sadly, we have a series of vertical silos, across which passengers have to pass horizontally. We want the experience to be less like a shopping trolley bumping across railway tracks.”

Griffiths also called on the industry to standardize. “We’ve got to take all our bureaucracy out of eye of the customer. As an industry, we have been putting the burden of the processes we created onto our customers.”

That bureaucracy should not be the customer’s responsibility, he argues. Data should be captured just once and then transmitted from airport to airport through a seamless interface, for the passenger’s benefit.

“All disaggregation [like Amazon, eBay and Uber] has been about making the process seamless for the consumer and we’ve got to do the same. A lot of airport design is not really favoring the customer. Rather than creating airports for the convenience of convergence, we have to rethink the whole thing.”

Griffiths believes the future lies in “disaggregating” airports, creating a series of mini passenger processing terminals, which could be located in cities, suburbs and office parks. All processing would be done in a single transaction.

“Once it’s been identified that you’re going on a particular aircraft, a pod, or railway system will take you directly to a concourse where your aircraft is parked,” he said. “Why can’t we make air travel intimate again? Why do we have to have it together, in one space, for convenience of processes? Disaggregation makes it more efficient and cuts out a lot of the problems we see today.”

He also believes airports need to radically shift the way they view the airport-airline relationship. “Treating airlines like a minor irritant that gets in the way of a shopping experience is the old way of thinking,” he said. “I think we’re at the inflexion point of actually moving whole airport industry into a new chapter.”

Part of this relationship could involve a renewed focus on on-time performance, which Griffiths described as “an absolute hygiene factor.” He suggested video footage of aircraft turnarounds could help identify where improvements could be made.

Griffiths used the example of Formula 1 racing, where pit stop times have been honed from around a minute down to three seconds.

“They have relentlessly reengineered every tiny component part of that turnaround to get it down to three seconds. If we could get that order magnitude, just imagine the impact it could have on the customer experience.”

Victoria Moores