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Leadership and innovation: The path to future-wise airport enterprises


The air transportation industry is immersed in discussions and events revolving around innovation. However, these conversations often overlook the strategic framework required for effective implementation.

In this article, we explore the recent executive-level Forum on Innovation organised by the International Airport Professional Community of Practice (IAP CoP).

The objective was to highlight the vital role of leadership in driving impactful innovation. It brought together industry experts and airport management professionals from 27 countries from all corners of the world. The Forum, chaired by Mike Nakornkhet, the EVP/CFO of Denver International Airport and chairman of the IAP CoP, took place in Barcelona earlier this year.

Executive Perspective

The event started on a high-powered note with an ‘Executive Outlook on Innovation’ presented by five Airport CEOs/IAPs representing airports from five continents, each operating under a different governance model.

However, the session didn’t focus on specific technologies; instead, it centred around how leadership teams in airport enterprises can foster innovative thinking and motivate employees to adopt a proactive mindset of constantly seeking improvements.

Craig Shaw from Broome, Australia, highlighted the need to ‘Experiment Rapidly and to Fail Fast’ when pursuing new opportunities, promoting agility in innovation. Lance Lyttle from Seattle shared successful grass-root innovations that originated from ‘Shark Tank’-style sessions, where airport senior managers evaluated ideas proposed by employees, fostering pride and buy-in regarding new initiatives.

David Ciceo from Cluj, Romania, and Ricardo Hernandez from Costa Rica, highlighted how constraints related to governance or regulatory environments can foster unconventional approaches to delivering airport services.

While Christine Gideon Mwakatobe from Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, emphasised the importance of pushing innovation efforts towards environmental improvements as part of corporate social responsibility.

The five CEOs agreed that successful innovation in the airport business requires cooperation from multiple stakeholders. They emphasised the importance of creating a safe and rewarding environment for staff to suggest concrete improvements.

Urban Air Mobility – Ecosystem Perspective

The keynote address of the Forum was delivered by Sergio Colella, president of SITA Europe (SITA), who spoke about the systemic implications of Urban Air Mobility.

He discussed global financial projections for the air mobility market, estimated to reach between $61 billion by 2030 (PwC) and $115 billion by 2035 (Deloitte).

He also described both opportunities and risks related to the certification, modes of propulsion, and aeronautical design of urban air mobility. These remarks triggered an interesting discussion on the social acceptability of this new transportation segment.

AEMCs and Airport Performance Enablers

The Forum then moved on to a session dedicated to the presentation of breakthrough technologies that have a significant impact on airport performance. This session demonstrated how strategically aligning enabling technologies within a co-ordinated framework can yield extraordinary results.

All presentations were tied to the concept of Airport Enterprise Management Centres (AEMCs), which are the next generation of Airport Operations Control Centres, as described in a joint White Paper developed by the IAP CoP and the ASI Institute ).

AEMCs act as a strategic tool, integrating several enabling systems to optimise airport activities, facilitate stakeholder collaboration, manage data, and enable historical and predictive analytics.

Jean-Marc Trottier, the executive director of the ASI Institute, introduced the AEMC framework, followed by specialised enterprises showcasing enabling breakthrough technologies such as 5G Private Networks (Sarah Trudell, Ambra Solutions, Airside Digitalisation and AI (Marek Franko, NG Aviation), Advanced Airport Facilities Management Systems (José Arsenio, KraftOne Group (www.kraftonegroup.com), and People Flow Management Systems and Analytics (Rico Barandun, Xovis).

The experts purported that 5G Private Networks will profoundly revolutionise communications, data transmission and support AI applications at airports. It will create savings for airport enterprises and allow for new sources of revenues through the sale of service enhancing efficiencies to airport stakeholders.

While securing private telecom frequencies from government authorities remains a challenge in some countries, the global landscape has been evolving rapidly, and it is expected that most airports will adopt 5G PNs within 3 to 5 years. 5G public commercial systems and 5G PNs are radically different.

One key success factor of implementation for airport enterprises is to partner with 5G PNs integrators rather than with traditional telcos and equipment manufacturers. Although 5G PNs are new to airports, they have already been implemented globally for four to five years in other industries, such as mining.

5G PNs will become a critical enabling system for AEMCs in the context of airport digitalisation initiatives.

Airside information at airports is generally not currently available in digital format and one major deficiency in the vast majority of airport operations control centres is their inability to display aircraft movements and related data in real time.

Because flight activity drives all demand for airport services and commercial offerings, prioritising airside information in the undertaking of airport digitisation initiatives would make eminent sense from a safety/security and business perspective.

Airport Maintenance Management Systems (AMMS) are often overly complex and require a massive amount of data entry. Nonetheless airports could benefit from investing as much energy on this aspect of the business as they are on developing retail related revenue generation activity as effective savings on facilities management can have a huge relative impact on the bottom-line performance of the enterprise.

This is even more of interest now that simpler performance-based MMS are becoming available and can be tied to airport activity data in an AEMC environment.

5G PNs allow for geo-positioning of staff, vehicles and equipment but do not directly inform on passenger flows and bottlenecks in the processing system within terminal buildings. Dedicated ceiling-mounted flow monitoring systems would allow for observing congestion at such critical points as check-in, security screening, immigration, retail, and baggage claim areas.

Interfacing these systems with other AEMC hosted data would make them even more effective for predictive analytics purposes.

Innovation in Action – Professional Insights

In the final session, professional airport innovation specialists shared their insights. Sam Ingalls, IAP, (ACI World IT Committee member) emphasised the impact of 5G Private Networks on automating ramp operations and the importance of comprehensive connectivity for all stakeholders on airport premises.

Jessica Marin-Urrea, IAP (Miami), highlighted the significance of prioritising passenger-centric innovation efforts. Lastly, Luc Laveyne, senior advisor for innovation at ACI EUROPE, provided concluding remarks, echoing the sentiments the IAP CEOs had emphasised during the opening discussions that ‘innovation’ had to be an integral part of the Strategic Plans of all airport enterprises and of concern to all managers, not of a special-purpose team operating in a de-facto silo.

Until Next Time

The success of the Forum reflects the potential contributions of the IAP CoP to the advancement of airport management best practices and the profession as a whole. By focusing on the critical role of leadership in driving innovation and showcasing breakthrough technologies, the Forum in Barcelona has provided valuable insights and inspiration for airport enterprises worldwide.

With growing complexities and challenges in the industry, embracing innovative thinking and fostering a culture of continuous improvement has become imperative for future success.

The IAP CoP, through such forums, will continue to play a vital role in shaping the future of airport management and driving industry innovation forward.

About the author
Dr Pierre Coutu is the designated Administrator of the IAP CoP which is the association of the Global ACI ICAO Global Airport Management Professional Accreditation Programme (AMPAP) Graduates. He is also chairman of the ASI Institute.


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