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Over the next 30 years, every assumption and norm underpinning the need for airports and the way that these facilities function will be open to disruption, writes Thornton Tomasetti’s senior resilience consultant, Richard Look.

The very concept of airports and how we interact with them will change. Despite this era of uncertainty, we need our airports to continue to develop at an ever-increasing pace. Failure to do so risks future economic growth and international competitiveness.

How can airports continue to develop with any measure of confidence in the face of the very real risk that some investments could be obsolete in as little as 10 years?

The context

Airports are the interface between ground and air mobility systems that allow business and private relationships to extend over great distances.

They are vital to maintaining international relationships and allowing the rapid transit of high-value goods. As such, airports play a key role as enablers for the world’s economies.

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At the same time, they are communities of business aligned around the air/ground interface. They are micro-cities providing opportunities, jobs and economic activity to underpin the local society.

It is vital that the communities and business partners work effectively together to ensure common outcomes are delivered. These business and social communities also need to develop together to remain relevant within the developing business context.

At a macro level, the need for airports comes from the highly controlled and safety conscious nature of air mobility. To state the obvious, we need aircraft to be safe and therefore highly regulated.

This has driven the airport model that exists today, with highly complex concentrations of assets, people and a host of other interdependencies.

The aviation industry supports 29 million jobs globally (directly and indirectly), amounting to a global economic impact of $2,960 billion (2018). When this sector is disrupted, the economic impact is significant.


This was evident through incidents such as the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in 2010, which caused an estimated impact of £1.1 billion to the airline industry.

The December 2018 drone incident at Gatwick Airport in the UK affected approximately 140,000 passengers and 1,000 flights over a particularly busy period, with an estimated cost of £50-70 million to the airport and airlines.

Shock factors like those outlined above, and stress factors such as climate change and new technologies, are likely to disrupt existing airport operations in the medium term.

The introduction of self-drive cars is on the horizon, which means airports need to be aware of certain elements, such as a reduction in parking revenue at airports and increasingly more congested road networks as they have to deal with the added burden of empty vehicles.

The drive to be carbon neutral by 2050 will also have implications on the future-proofing of airports, from the heating of terminals to the structural design of buildings.

The increasing use of electric cars means airports will need to evaluate and update the number of charging points and supporting infrastructure. Looking further ahead, the introduction of electric planes will put even greater demand on the power infrastructure.


Furthermore, housing pressures on the green belt, growing urbanisation, land scarcity and increased land prices all put greater limits on airport footprints and can confine the scope for future expansion.

At the same time, a squeeze on public sector spending will make it more difficult to get off-site infrastructure to match airport development.

Finally, the ever-expanding use of AI in all aspects of society is likely to have profound impacts on how airports and their airspace are controlled.

We are already seeing rapid change in ID technology and security equipment, which is likely to become more integrated and advanced in coming years. Security challenges will also come into greater focus, with higher importance being placed on cyber threats and attacks.


We have conducted a number of studies on how to make our society more fit to meet the needs of the future.

These studies have looked at societies and infrastructure within a range of contexts and scales; this includes a number of specific studies into the long-term prospects for airports, including a recent study delivered by Thornton Tomasetti for the not-for-profit organisation Resilience First.

The study engaged a number of airports and their business communities to establish an assessment framework and learn lessons about the agility of their business communities.

Key findings

Agility is “the ability of an organisation to renew itself, adapt, change quickly, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment. Agility is not incompatible with stability—quite the contrary. Agility requires stability for most companies.” (Aaron De Smet – McKinsey)

We found a strong link between agility, resilience and productivity. The higher-performing organisations and business communities from our studies appeared to perform well in the following ways:

Alignment, Culture & Behaviour

  • Strong identity and unifying vision
  • Common values and standards of behaviour
  • Free and open communication supported by trust and integrity

Integration & Inclusivity

  • Maximised human capital created by engaging widely across boundaries
  • Broken down internal and external barriers
  • A clear, flexible and balanced structure
  • Information sharing and open communication
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Reflect, Learn & Adapt

  • Learning from the past and present to improve in the future
  • A culture of collective learning

Risk, Opportunity & Awareness

  • Using data to overcome natural biases
  • Horizon scanning and scenario planning
  • Understanding the risks and opportunities posed by shocks and stresses


  • A broad world view informed by good data and models
  • Clear strategy and direction
  • Building trust through high levels of integrity and consistency in behaviour
  • Developing leaders throughout the organisation who unify and engage; no toxic and divisive leaders

Technology & Enterprise Architecture

  • Embrace of technology and engaging the organisation to identify the opportunities it brings
  • Use of enterprise architecture and systems engineering to develop a value chain model
  • Use of models to understand the implications of shocks, stresses and future scenarios
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Airports need to be able to endure shocks and adapt to future stresses. They need the management practices, relationships and culture for setting the conditions to enable agility within their business and social communities.

Agility is the part of resilience that will deliver competitive advantage and the long-term prosperity of business communities.

Most mature organisations have a well-structured foundation for agility, but the ones that have actively developed a resilience culture are the most agile and productive.

It is imperative that business communities such as airports work together to share, align and improve their collective agility. This will improve productivity and performance at a community, airport and regional scale.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the blog. The aviation industry is is growing at a faster rate than the general economy due to favorable fundamentals and the efficiency the industry brings to travel.


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