Dubai's new airport terminal to have more than double current retail space, DDF chief says

Number of employees at the new duty free likely to double to nearly 10,000, outgoing Dubai Duty Free chief Colm McLoughlin says

An artist's impression of the passenger terminal to be built at Al Maktoum International Airport scheduled for completion within 10 years. Photo: Dubai Airports
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Dubai's $35 billion passenger terminal at Al Maktoum International Airport is expected to include at least 100,000 square metres of retail space and employ 10,000 people when it opens within 10 years, according to the outgoing boss of Dubai Duty Free.

That is more than double the 40,000 square metres of retail space that Dubai Duty Free currently operates across Dubai International and AI Maktoum International airports and nearly double its workforce of 5,700 staff.

“The new airport announcement is fantastic … I expect business in that time – if you look at continuous growth and passenger spend that will grow – in 10 years, Dubai Duty Free will have $3 billion in annual sales,” Colm McLoughlin, executive vice chairman and chief executive of Dubai Duty Free, told The National.

I came to Dubai in 1983 for six months and those six months have not finished yet
Colm McLoughlin, executive vice chairman and chief executive of Dubai Duty Free

Space is very important. There will be a minimum 100,000 square metres and there will probably at the time be 10,000 staff working for Dubai Duty Free.”

Dubai Duty Free's sales hit a record of Dh7.8 billion ($2.16 billion) in 2023, up 24 per cent on the previous year and an increase of 6.4 per cent on pre-pandemic levels in 2019, thanks to an air travel boom.

The future scale of airport retail operations matches Dubai's expansion ambitions for the new passenger terminal at Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC).

The airport, spread across 70 square kilometres, will include 400 aircraft gates, five parallel runways and the capacity to handle 150 million passengers annually in its initial phase. Once completed, it will have “the world's largest capacity”, reaching up to 260 million passengers.

Post-retirement plans

Mr McLoughlin offered a glimpse of future airport retail plans after he last week announced plans to retire, following 55 years in the travel retail industry, of which, 41 were spent at the helm of Dubai Duty Free.

He will step down on May 31 after decades of growing Dubai's travel retail to the world's single-largest duty free operation located in one airport.

Ramesh Cidambi, the chief operating officer, will become managing director from June 1.

Mr McLoughlin, 80, said he will remain with Dubai Duty Free in an advisory role and as a representative at its busy events and promotions calendar that includes the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

“I will be an adviser to the Dubai Duty Free and will advise its management and look forward to seeing the activities we sponsor grow,” he said.

The Dubai Duty Free subsidiary businesses include The Irish Village restaurants, The Century Village, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium and the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel.

The two Irish Village establishments could be expanded to four in the next 10 years and there is room to expand the tennis tournament to a “higher standard”, Mr McLoughlin said.

“When I'm wanted to give an opinion or to help, I'm happy to do it,” he said.

Following his retirement, the Irishman will continue to live in Dubai.

“I have my own residence in Dubai and will continue to spend time there,” Mr McLoughlin said.

While Mr McLoughlin, who is originally from County Galway, describes himself as “Irish through and through”, he is “comfortable and happy” to continue living in Dubai, he said.

Early memories of Dubai

With encyclopaedic knowledge of Dubai's civil aviation industry, Mr McLoughlin's memories of coming to the emirate in the early 1980s offer a glimpse of how the sector took shape in its early days.

He was one of the 10 members of the original consultancy team from Aer Rianta, the Irish Airport Authority, that was contracted by the Dubai government to launch the duty free operation in 1983.

Shannon Duty Free, where the Irishman began his long career in travel retail, is the world’s first duty free and began offering its services to travellers in 1947.

“I was the manager of the Duty Free in Shannon and was one of those 10 people who came here on a six-month contract. I came to Dubai in 1983 for six months and those six months have not finished yet,” Mr McLoughlin said.

He recalls starting Dubai Duty Free operations in December 1983 with a team of 120 people and full-year sales of Dh72 million in the first 12 months of full operations in 1984.

The size of the operation has jumped to Dh7.8 billion in annual sales and 21.5 million transactions in 2023, its biggest sales on record.

“I'm very happy with what we've done … I can't take the credit, we have a fantastic team of people here,” he said, noting that a system of internal promotions has boosted staff loyalty over the years.

Mr McLoughlin also recalls the establishing of Emirates Airline about 40 years ago, in 1985, and of being among its first passengers.

“I remember clearly when Emirates was founded in 1985 and I went on one of inaugural flights from Dubai to Sharjah and back. I remember being on that flight and thinking it was a great experience,” Mr McLoughlin said.

At the time, passenger traffic at Dubai International Airport was about four million and it has since jumped to 89 million in 2023, he said.

Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai Airports, said Mr McLoughlin's 55 years in the industry is an “extraordinary achievement that has shaped travel retail in Dubai and the wider region”, according to a post on his LinkedIn account.

Mr McLoughlin also traced the changing coastline of Dubai.

“I was sat in a motor car the day Chicago Beach was demolished … it is now replaced by Burj Al Arab,” he said. Dubai's historic Chicago Beach Hotel closed in 1997 to make way for Wild Wadi.

Asked if he would write a book to document his memories of the city and its aviation landscape, Mr McLoughlin said that while he has no such plans at the moment, author Graeme Wilson has published A Life Well Spent – a book chronicling the story of Mr McLoughlin’s life and career.

“I'm very happy about the 40 years spent working in Dubai Duty Free and continuing to be a resident of Dubai,” Mr McLoughlin said.

“No doubt Dubai Duty free will continue to grow in the coming years.”

Updated: May 13, 2024, 3:30 AM