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People expect airports to smoothly manage incidents, ensure universal passenger safety and offer a high level of convenience to customers regardless of their flight plans. Tall orders, all.

Heathrow runway

Today’s airports simultaneously face familiar, evolving and brand new challenges that complicate operations and directly impact travel experiences.

‘Black swan’ events like Gatwick’s recent run-in with drones continue to make the headlines and negatively impact the passenger experiences.

Amid the chaos, airports must handle a diverse set of incidents with equal amounts of grace under pressure. To do so, airport leaders need to develop the right management playbook that anticipates, addresses and adapts to the new realities facing air travel.
Indeed, every airport enlists a different approach to dealing with incidents and responding to challenges. However, there are two clear overarching philosophies guiding the process: (1) identify specialised plans tailored to individual incident response or (2) build a menu of flexible protocols that can be adapted depending on the situation.

For instance, London’s Heathrow Airport has over 2,000 options for how they deal with major disruptions, from abandoned luggage in the terminal to digital or physical security breaches.

Singapore’s Changi employs four methods in crisis situations. While Heathrow has more resources, Singapore can respond to challenges faster. There’s merit in both approaches, but today’s evolving challenges call for fresh thinking. 
To combat the challenges of today, airport leaders should start by asking themselves three questions:

• How can an airport work to keep people safe, everyone informed and react to fluid challenges in real-time?

• How can an airport effectively manage large numbers of people in the path of potential danger or stuck in a terminal for hours?

• What can an airport learn from the psychology of passengers facing lengthy delays and more serious impediments to travel?


Indeed, airports are getting better at handling the “known unknowns” including tarmac fires, flight cancellations, bad weather and more serious events.

However, they are less prepared for newer challenges, like British Airways’ recent IT failure at Heathrow or Gatwick’s December encounters with consumer drones that cost airlines an estimated $64.5 million.

The world’s airports need to be able to deal with or contain the cause of a crisis – no matter how mundane, extreme or unforeseen – while ensuring that their passengers remain safe, secure and informed throughout the incident.

pax sec

From an airport management standpoint, these situations cannot be planned for in the traditional sense – with regularly scheduled drills to prepare employees for air disasters, terrorism, airline bankruptcy or bad weather.

Incidents can be as simple as a small drone clumsily flying through an airport’s airspace or both of an airport’s data centers going down at the same time. Either way, they are very difficult to anticipate – and contain.
So how can airports truly mitigate, train and innovate for the unknown? 
I believe the end goal for airports facing new challenges should be to formulate simple and clear plans that enable staff to respond quickly and effectively to any situation. These efforts need to be developed in ways that map to a specific airport’s infrastructure, architecture and workforce abilities.

In a way, it’s not so much about the situation itself that needs to be anticipated, it’s the potential impact it could have on the airport and its passengers.

At ICF, for example, we worked with a major international hub to help them develop a different perspective on their response so that they are more effectively prepared to follow a strategy that will make the best of the situation when the worst does happen – rather than submit to chaos or make decisions that worsen conditions for passengers.
The bottom line is that every airport management team should conduct exercises that go through every possible scenario – from the entirely possible to the frankly ludicrous – and find common outcomes to build action plans around.

Airports should always approach these exercises from the point of view of the passenger. It’s not easy, and there are many considerations and stakeholders that can complicate the plans, but the payoff of successful planning is priceless.

Airports should work to understand the new challenges that they might face, how to deal with them and what changes need to be made to keep people safe and airspace clear in today’s connected world.

• Nigel Womersley De Zaldua is a principal at ICF.

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