The path towards airport operational efficiency: moving towards Total Airport Management
Thomas Romig, Vice President Safety, Security and Operations, Airports Council International, reminds us of the capacity challenges being faced by airports around the world before COVID-19, and explains how an effective APOC, in conjunction with the adoption of the TAM concept, has the potential to drive efficiency and provide an invaluable holistic view of the entire airport system, to address this issue as passengers return.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly taken a toll on the entire aviation system and sent passenger and aircraft traffic down to levels that the industry had not experienced for many, many years. However, as traffic starts to build back up and demand increases again, it is important to look back at some of the capacity issues that were faced pre-COVID-19 pandemic and identify possible measures that can increase operational efficiency, relieve some of the pressures on the system, and provide the best possible customer experience to the travelling public. The development of an effective Airport Operations Centre (APOC) integrating all key airport ecosystems stakeholders and based on the principles of Total Airport Management (TAM), should help relieve some of these future pressures and build more efficiency into the overall air transport system.
In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, global air traffic was rising and passenger figures were hitting year-on-year records across the globe. Due to several reasons, airports, air navigation service providers, and airlines were struggling to keep up with the ever-increasing demand and delays, flight cancellations and operational constraints. Even though efforts were made to optimise customer service and cater to the demand, in certain circumstances it became increasingly complex to provide a reliable and on-time schedule. This so-called ‘capacity crunch’ was particularly present during some of the peak traffic periods of the year, which are notoriously affected by adverse weather events. For example, ski traffic in winter going to the European Alps being affected by snow and low visibility operations, or summer vacation traffic flying to beach destinations being affected by thunderstorm activity across the airspace.
Solving capacity issues
As an aviation system, there are several ways that capacity issues can be resolved; each with different costs and impacts on the issue at hand. Adding physical capacity, either through infrastructure or equipment, can resolve the situation, but tends to be costly as major investments are needed. Adding human capital is another solution often used but does not necessarily have a direct correlation with productivity and will, of course, be limited by the available physical capacity. Adding human resources can also incur significant cost increases that are not necessarily budgeted for or may not be covered in existing contracts.
The most interesting option, from a cost vs. benefit perspective, is increasing operational efficiency and building up the airport system’s capacity through better use of available resources. In many cases this is easier said than done, and although it does not require an investment worthy of constructing a new terminal or runway, it still requires some financial investment and, in particular, an operational analysis of the airport system to identify the operating model that will bring the most gains, as well as adequate planning and time for implementation.
As the industry emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to recover from massive cost-cutting measures and a globally slow economy, creating operational efficiencies can be an interesting way to postpone the development of new, and often costly, infrastructures and find a more sustainable use of the existing airport system and capacity. Many airports were already turning their attention to concepts such as the Airport Operations Centre (APOC) or striving to achieve Total Airport Management (TAM) before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as we look to the future, this focus, and level of interest will most certainly be even higher.
The role of APOC and TAM
The concepts of the APOC or TAM are not new. They are, to a certain extent, based on the simple principles of planning, co-ordinating, and communicating across a multitude of stakeholders within the airport system. In fact, the very notion of Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) – a technology-based information sharing solution – is predicated on ensuring collaboration across the airport, and the wider aviation system, through the pre-tactical and tactical sharing of data. So far A-CDM technology, allowing for network or local level co-ordination, has been implemented at 30 airports across Europe and dozens more on a global scale.
On an airport level, A-CDM can be considered as the first step in providing more co-ordinated airport operations decision-making outcomes. For a real-time holistic approach enabling efficient airport operations management, the scope of A-CDM must be extended to move towards the TAM concept, whereby the integral airport system is co-ordinated. Tying the airspace flow management into the airside operations and through to the terminal operations and even landside access, will allow for the development of an end-to-end view of the airport system. Once this holistic view is achieved, it starts becoming easier to identify the bottlenecks, the potential failure points and degraded operating conditions, and anticipate the impact of these on the upstream and downstream operations. Once identified, actions should be co-ordinated amongst affected stakeholders to maintain smooth operation, and this is where the APOC comes into play.
The APOC is the beating heart of an airport’s operation
Depending on the individual situation and operating model, the APOC can be seen as a sole co-ordination function across the airport system or a centralised infrastructure, into which all key decision making and co-ordinating functions connect. This second interpretation, which has proven during the COVID-19 pandemic that it can even work remotely, is in essence the heart and brains of the airport’s operation. It should strive to centralise all relevant data sources, provide a holistic view of the entire airport system, establish a strategic Airport Operations Plan (AOP) that will be run in pre-tactical scenarios, and finally manage tactically on the day of operation. In principle, the fact that operations are planned pre-tactically and co-ordinated tactically amongst all stakeholders across the airport system, means that there is less room for error and therefore loss of efficiency. In principle, deviations from the plan are identified prior to them occurring and corrective action decided with all relevant stakeholders.
Beyond just operational efficiency
As airports progress through their journey towards a fully co-ordinated operation, it becomes interesting to look even further down the road at the notion of enterprise management. Currently, there are airports looking to move beyond the initial focus on operations to grow into an overall business enterprise focus. In many cases, the first step along this path is the use of an integrated APOC as a basis into which business-oriented indicators, such as financial KPIs, Service Quality Indexes or environmental performance metrics are included. This uses the advantages of relevant systems already available within the APOC, the communication and co-ordination protocols in place coupled with effective decision-making methodologies to build the operational efficiency of the airport system, integrating strategic input from core areas of the airport business. Leading airports are now evolving to even higher levels of service by becoming ‘intelligent’ airports, focusing on the entire customer experience, the airport’s business performance, and not only operational efficiency.
Despite all these great future aspirations, the key for many airport operators is to take the first step towards creating more efficiency within the airport system which, in turn, will most likely have a direct impact on the airport’s capacity. There are a multitude of paths that will lead an airport towards the development of an APOC and the needed implementation of operational methodologies allowing for TAM, but it is up to each airport to determine what shape and form this should take. There is, however, one common theme that is applicable to all airports; a commitment from the highest levels of the organisation to make a difference, to become more efficient in the use of resources and, in the end, to drive the airport’s customer experience and revenues.
Thomas Romig is a graduate of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University where he obtained an Aviation Business Management degree. After four years with ACI World, Thomas took up the position of Safety Officer at Genève Aéroport where he was in charge of developing the airport Safety Office, ensuring regulatory compliance through the Aerodrome Certification process and implementing the Safety Management System.
In 2013, Thomas changed roles to become the Department Head for the new Airport Operation Center (APOC) where he was tasked with developing an airport wide operational co-ordination and management center that is aimed at increasing the efficiency and performance of the airport.
Following four years in this function, Thomas took on the responsibility for developing the new Aviation Department managing all airside operations and developments. Finally, in 2019 Thomas took on a new role as Head of the new Operations Control and Development Department, in charge of managing the daily operations of the airport as well as identifying the future infrastructures and systems needed to meet forecasted demands.