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At the forefront: Steve Allen, dnata

Mehak Srivastava speaks to Steve Allen of dnata, delving into the air service providers’ successful growth and plans for the near future

Photos by Naveed Ahmad, Xtreme

Originating as an acronym of Dubai National Air Travel Agency, dnata has been an integral link in the growth of Dubai International Airport. Offering best-in-class services in ground handling, cargo management, catering, and passenger services, dnata has emerged as a global name in the world of aviation.

LNME meets Steve Allen, divisional senior vice president, UAE Airport Operations, a key partaker in the success story that is Dubai Airports. Allen oversees the ground handling and cargo operations at both Dubai International Airport (DXB), as well as Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC) in Dubai World Central.

“We have an operation of about 20,000 staff, across both airports,” remarks Allen. “And accounting the over 3,500 pieces of motorised equipment, it is actually the biggest ground handling operation in the world. It’s a good challenge, a fair challenge, and more so, it’s a great place to be doing it. [Dubai] is so positive and innovative in terms of their approach.”

Commenting on in his years in Dubai, he adds: “There have been massive changes, yes. But the one thing that actually hasn’t changed is that this airport [DXB] still remains the main hub for Dubai and the main hub for the Middle East. DXB used to initially be on the edge of the town but is now right in the middle of town— and is still able to cope with being [one of] the busiest airports in the world. I think the great thing is that it has been instrumental in the growth of Dubai. They have both complemented each other, with DXB bringing people to Dubai, while the emirate’s growth has in turn helped sustain the airport and airlines.”

About Steve Allen

Allen comes with over 15 years of experience in British Airways and helped design Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5, prior to joining dnata in 2008 as vice president operations, where he was instrumental in the birth of the One dnata Strategy. He then moved to lead the Performance Development department in 2011 as senior vice president and led a number of major programmes across the group, including the ongoing design for phase 2 of DWC. Allen is part of the Emirates Group Innovation board, and currently serves as a board member at two UAE-based companies.

Mega growth

In the fiscal year ended 31 March 2018, dnata’s UAE airport operations recorded revenues of AED3.15bn, representing 4.3% growth year over year. The growth primarily relates to ground handling operations at DXB, with the introduction of several new services from the current year. Their teams handled over 211,000 aircraft movements, more than 89 million passengers, and in excess of 731,000 tonnes of cargo at DXB and DWC.

On being queried on the rapid demand for specialised cargo services, Allen explains: “The growth of airlines and air travel is relentless, and when you talk about [markets] like China, India, and Africa, there’s plenty of potential for growth. You’ve got your traditional markets like Europe and the US, and new markets like the Middle East. Middle East has been one of the fastest growing regions in the world, in terms of growth of airlines, mainly helped by the hub carriers. Middle East is right in the centre of the major landmasses of the world. The growth in the region has been extremely strong over the course of the last 10-15 years, even when accounting for the slight slow-down of late.”

A recent report by Global Market Insights, Inc reveals that the aircraft ground handling system market is predicted to reach USD185bn by 2024, in keeping with the growing demand for quality solutions and products, due to technological advancements and changing consumer behaviour.

“When you look at the entire ground handling market, it’s all continuing to grow as air travel grows,” notes Allen. “I think the interesting thing is that only about 35% of the world’s ground handling market is actually outsourced or given to a ground handling provider. A lot of it is either run by the airlines themselves or by the airport. The trend now, however, is to consider this as a professional industry that requires specialised companies to do a safe and quality job, and so in dnata we look to fill that void and sort of say ‘here we are’. We’ve got a great reputation. We’ve got the ability to expand our knowledge and capability to take charge in airports around the world.”

Watch: “The long-term future is DWC,” says Steve.

In recent years, dnata has made significant investments which expanded its capability and global presence. In 2017, dnata entered the US cargo market with its acquisition of AirLogistix USA. The investment includes state-of-the-art specialised perishable cargo handling facilities in Houston and Dallas Fort-Worth. dnata also expanded its cargo handling capabilities at Gatwick, opened an additional cargo warehouse in Schiphol, and a new airside cargo facility in Adelaide.

In the US, it received a new license to provide ground handling services at John F. Kennedy International Airport’s (JFK) Terminal 4, in addition to the already existing licenses to operate at JFK’s Terminal 1, 7, and 8. In Singapore, dnata began operations at Singapore Changi Airport’s new Terminal 4, and opened a new maintenance base for ground service equipment.

Initiatives for success

“The challenge that comes with expansion here in Dubai is that the growth has been very quick,” says Allen. “The growth is driven by passenger demand, which is obviously then reflected in airline demand, and ground handling tends to be the last thing along the line of logistics chain. We’ve had to grow and adapt quickly along the way, and luckily, we’ve been successful at it. And as we’ve grown, we’ve not just multiplied the number of people or equipment. We’ve also used technology to optimise the process. DXB’s footprint, in terms of space, remains the same, but operations continue to grow. We had to find a way to work better in the same area, but with greater responsibilities.”

Allen emphasises that the advanced baggage systems were initiated to keep up with DXB’s growing operations. Robotic systems were added to lift heavy bags, reducing pressure on workers. Plus, anti-collision technology was introduced to prevent ground equipment from colliding into aircrafts and each other.

“The other big thing for all airports is the concept of airports ‘working together’. And I think we’re one of the most advanced airports in the world, where the stakeholders all work very closely together and we have common control systems that plan all of the resources, all of our activity, and share information about what’s going on. Everything is very well joined up.”

“We’ve had to grow and adapt quickly along the way, and luckily, we’ve been successful at it.”

dnata has recently completed a host of key initiatives aimed at significantly improving the efficiency of its processes and infrastructure in ground handling and cargo management.  The company opened a state-of-the-art  customer service centre and cargo integrated control centre located in the Dubai Airport Free Zone, as well as another cargo warehouse, increasing their processing capacity by 25%.

“In DWC, we began testing new equipment and processes at the passenger terminal, which has been undergoing significant expansion works to serve the future growth of travellers and flights. The learning from these tests is also being applied to enhance the efficiency of our operations at DXB.” dnata also partnered with flydubai to trial remote control electric vehicles used to service narrow-body aircraft.

“We accelerated the recycling programme for our fleet of 12,000 units of ground services equipment (GSE) at DXB and DWC,” further highlights Allen.

Instead of replacing the equipment at the end of their life cycle, dnata now performs a mechanical overhaul to put them back in service. Over 100 units of GSEs have been renewed to-date, reducing waste generated from this category of equipment by 250 tonnes, while passing all safety and quality checks and achieving savings in excess of AED14mn.

“In addition, we completed the conversion of all diesel-powered forklifts to electric ones. This is reducing the carbon footprint of cargo operations in Dubai by 80%, saving 200,000l of fuel per year, and reducing CO2 emissions by 47 tonnes per year.”

Investing in innovation

Intelak is a travel, aviation, and tourism incubator, led by the Emirates Group in partnership with GE and Dubai Tourism to support the UAE’s aviation ambitions.

It was through Intelak that dnata became familiar with DUBZ, a mobile technology service offering passengers the option of checking in their baggage from the luxury of their home or hotel. Allen voices that dnata believed DUBZ had successfully devised an application which struck a chord with their technology advancement plans. dnata acquired a majority stake in DUBZ in June 2018.

“We are now offering Dubai passengers a home check-in service where they have their baggage collected at home or the hotel, get their baggage checked-in on the spot, and collect their boarding passes from DUBZ. Passengers using this service can proceed straight to airport immigration, avoiding any potential queues at the check-in counters with the assurance that their bags have already been checked in with the airline.”

marhaba, international airlines, flydubai, flynas, and Saudia, as well as several hotels and malls have already added DUBZ services to their offering and there are ongoing discussions with other partners as well.

Allen adds that the service has especially seen demand from GCC families, who travel in larger groups and with a substantial amount of luggage.

“I think we need to focus on getting the message out there about the service, because people don’t know about it. We’re seeing month on month growth, but we’re obviously hoping for exponential results. We want customers to trust it and share great stories about it. It’s a pretty new concept worldwide. People still think you have to go to the airport to check in your baggage, and now you don’t.”

For the future

Allen believes that autonomous is the way to go and highlights that it is one of the things topping the roster for dnata.

“We’re working with some consultants from San Francisco, looking at how we could introduce autonomous within the airport, in terms of ground equipment, busses, anything airside. Autonomous is beneficial from all sides—be it environmentally, cost-effectively or even safety.

“There’s a lot of hurdles to pass along the way, regulatory hurdles especially. We’ve started to work with a number of partners on how we can introduce them here, and we want dnata to lead the way in terms of innovation. The best thing is that Dubai is the perfect place to innovate.”

He also mentions plans to introduce an app-based booking system for freight forwarders, cutting down their waiting times and improving overall efficiency.

“As one of the world’s largest air services provider, we are always on the lookout for new ways to expand our service portfolio and improve customer experience, while embracing innovation and new technology.”

Allen speaks for the team and is positive that DWC is the answer to Dubai’s long-term expansion plans in the aviation sector.

“From a dnata perspective, we have to make sure DXB runs smoothly with a great customer experience, despite the fact that it’s very busy. For DWC, we want to help Dubai Airports grow DWC for the future, and make it the biggest and best airport in the world.”

Arabian hospitality

Starting out at DXB in 1991, marhaba has become a reputable and intrinsic part of dnata’s portfolio.  From fast-track clearance through arrivals or departures to helping with transfers and baggage, marhaba ensures a swift, smooth, and safe passage through the two Dubai airports. This summer (June-August) 65,000 passengers were welcomed and assisted by the helpful marhaba agents in Dubai. 

Besides its popular meet and greet services, marhaba operates 12 departure lounges at seven airports in five countries, inviting travellers to enjoy its excellent international cuisine and relax or catch up with work in a peaceful environment. marhaba’s ever-growing network includes five departure lounges at Dubai International Airport, two at Singapore Changi Airport, and one each at Al Maktoum International Airport at Dubai World Central, Geneva Airport, Zurich Airport, Melbourne Airport, and Jinnah International Airport (Karachi).

“marhaba has become an icon for everyone who lives in Dubai,” remarks Allen. “I remember when I first arrived here and wondered in awe about the ladies in stylish uniforms, greeting us at the airport, which was truly an epitome of Arabian hospitality.

“Many airports have come to us since then, for us to establish a similar service at their premises, because it’s got a really good reputation. We know there’s a demand for it. When people get to an airport, they get a place to relax and wait for their flight. When you travel, you have these moments that you always remember, and we want marhaba to be one of those moments.”

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