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PEOPLE matters


The times, they are a changin’…

Dr Richard Plenty and Terri Morrissey reflect on how we need to design and build airport workforces for a changing, yet uncertain future.

Have you ever noticed how people, generally, seem to prefer to ‘to get on with things’ and take immediate decisive action rather than think things through and plan ahead?

In an uncertain world, perhaps that’s not surprising. It’s difficult enough sometimes to know what’s going to happen in the next week, let alone the next year or two. Taking action reduces uncertainty and makes us feel more in control.

And for most of us, life is very busy. There isn’t much time to pause, take a step back and reflect before we act.

Indeed, Stephen Pinker, the Canadian American cognitive psychologist and author points out that human beings have evolved to cope with ‘proximal’ rather than ‘distal’ issues – to deal effectively with immediate challenges rather than focus our energies on a hypothetical future.

Unfortunately, in a rapidly changing and uncertain world, a narrow, short-term operational approach has its limitations. Decisions which seem to be obvious at the time may not look so sensible as circumstances evolve and the environment shifts.

For example, airports that focused solely on workforce cuts over the pandemic to reduce costs, now find themselves without enough skilled and experienced people to take full advantage of the recovery.

In this context, it was interesting to see a recent report published in June 2022 on ‘The Future of the Airport Workforce’, which takes a more strategic approach to workforce planning.

The report, prepared by ACI-NA in collaboration with 4QD Strategy Consulting LLC, focuses on North America, but is of general relevance to the whole sector. The report describes some of the major trends impacting the airport workforce – rapidly developing technology, demographic changes, generational shifts in attitudes and values, hybrid working and increasing competition.

The pandemic has accelerated the changes that were already underway and has led to people rethinking their attitudes to work.

The skills and competencies needed for success are changing. Specialised technical expertise, particularly in IT but also in skilled trades, will continue to be essential – and are already in short supply.

However, most of the biggest skill gaps longer-term will be in the ‘soft skills’ required to build the agile and flexible workforce needed to work successfully in a rapidly changing, digitised, customer-focused environment:

  • Intellectual: strategic thinking and future focus, problem solving and resolution, critical thinking, digital fluency
  • Relationships: building interpersonal and cross functional connections and relationships, influencing without formal authority
  • Personal: leadership behaviour at all levels, agility, resiliency, flexibility and versatility

At the moment, training and development in soft skills is principally focused on current and emerging leaders. But the report goes further, arguing that given the fundamental changes taking place in the airport environment, these skills need to be developed much more systematically, at a much greater scale, and cover all levels of the general airport population.

We agree with this approach. But it won’t be easy. Our experience is that the term ‘soft skills’ is a misnomer. They are generally ‘hard’ to develop, requiring not just training courses, but on the job coaching, mentoring and support to help people learn what it means to put them into practice in an operational environment.

It will need investment in people on a larger scale than up to now as well as sustained sectoral leadership commitment.

It seems somewhat ironic that the most important immediate lesson we can learn from the pandemic is the need to take a longer-term perspective.


H.E. Jamal Salem Al Dhaheri is the new managing director and CEO of Abu Dhabi Airports, his brief being to “continue the journey of success” achieved by predecessor, Shareef Hashim Al Hashmi.

Keith Brune will serve as the new interim CEO of Philadelphia International Airport until a permanent replacement can be found for Chellie Cameron, who left the role this summer to become the new president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia.

Derek Provan, chief executive of AGS Airports, which owns Aberdeen, Glasgow and Southampton airports in the UK, has announced that he will step down from his position next year. Provan, who joined AGS in April 2018, has taken the decision to step away from his executive role to pursue non-executive opportunities after 25 years in the aviation industry. He has agreed to remain in post until March 31, 2023, and will assist the AGS Board with the transition as it starts the process of appointing a successor.

Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) has announced that both chief financial officer, Ian Clarke, and vice president of airport development and technical services, Pat Neville, are to retire at the end of the 2022.

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