5 steps to avoid Airport misery

Submitted Article
For some time now question marks have been placed against airports and their Business Continuity and resilience capability. In the past year alone we have seen at close hand the global chaos caused by the volcanic ash cloud, while more recently we witnessed some of Europe’s leading airports struggle to maintain operational readiness during periods of heavy snowfall.
If we go back a little further there are other striking examples, all of which add to the pervading view that airports cannot cope effectively when placed under duress and that their Business Continuity need to be improved.
In the middle of all of this uncertainty, the customer is often stuck in a terminal waiting for updates from either the airline or the operator, all the while growing increasingly frustrated about the level of mixed messages they receive, depending on who they speak to inside or outside the airport.
Learning from the past
Airport operators, airliners and air-traffic controllers all spend copious amounts of time planning the design, development and delivery of their airport. On that basis, why are there still so many instances of inefficient operations when the going gets tough?
The reality is that some of these shortcomings may have existed and gone unnoticed for years as it is only at a moment when an airport is truly tested or put under extreme operational conditions that these underlying issues come to light.
Crisis scenarios can develop overnight and by their very nature can be impossible to predict. However, in some other cases, an airport can anticipate increased levels of demand and it is remiss of them not to plan ahead and focus on how to best manage this additional strain on their services.
One such situation would be a global sporting event, and with the UK gearing up to host the 2012 Olympic Games next summer, five steps that airports across the country will want to consider include:
  • Plan for the worst:
    It is essential that airports and airline operators develop effective Business Continuity and contingencies plans for non-standard situations. They should also consider operational testing and simulation exercises which could provide insight on how their asset is equipped to deal with increased strain, and to identify areas where improvements need to be made

  • Ensure all stakeholders are aligned in advance:
    In extreme situations it is essential that all parties – airlines, operators, ground handlers and air-traffic controllers – are closely integrated and clear on each other’s roles and responsibilities. Without this coordinated response, cracks start to quickly appear and the management of a non-routine situation can quickly descend into chaos

  • Get the right people in charge:
    Airports also need to ensure that they have experienced management in charge during a crisis situation and their wider staff base is well aware of the procedures to follow once the contingency plans are put in place. Knowledge alone is not enough however – staff also need to be suitably trained in advance to deal with a range of potential scenarios

  • Tackle the communication challenge:
    In a crisis situation it is crucial that there is an open stream of communication between airport officials, airline operators and the customer on the ground. For communication channels to be effective however, all parties need to be equipped with the appropriate equipment including 2-way radio communications. Using mobile phones to try and communicate with an overloaded operations centre is totally inadequate in an emergency environment as recognised by the inquiries into the July 7 London bombings and the 9/11 terrorist attack. Furthermore, other resources within the terminal need to be exploited to their full potential. The dynamic advertising boards could be used to display flight information and contact numbers, while the existing PA system can also help to relay on important information

  • Prioritise the flight schedule:
    At those high-intensity moments when staff is required to adapt to very specialist and non-routine operations, quickly linking the available capacity with a flight schedule is absolutely fundamental. This allows airlines and operators to prioritise, match their capacity to the weather or operational constraints, and avoid congestion and unnecessary flight cancellations.

Looking ahead to the future
There are multiple reasons why airports need to adopt a more rigorous approach when it comes to being better prepared for non-standard periods of operation. However, in simple terms, if they choose not to invest time and resource here, the best they can realistically hope for is a short period of chaos. In the worst-case scenario this lack of attention could cost stakeholders multi-million pounds in reactive planning and momentous reputation damage.
With the industry anticipating a new government initiative for aviation in the UK later this year, it raises the question on the value of considering airport resilience levels alongside things like airport charges and safety regulation. The challenge lies in helping airports to become more effective during extreme operations, while at the same time ensuring that the passenger is offered a reliable service.  A passenger charter and a regulatory regime that offers greater freedom to the operators and airlines to set charges would go some way to achieving these objectives.
Paul Willis is partner, head of aviation at built-asset consultancy EC Harris. The opinions expressed are his own.