“This is innovation” with Abhi Chacko
At the World Aviation Festival 2022 in Amsterdam, International Airport Review Editor, Holly Miles, caught up with Abhi Chacko, Head of Innovation & Commercial IT Services at London Gatwick Airport for this exclusive interview.
During the pandemic, many airports had to cut budgets and funding as their passenger numbers dwindled. Gatwick was no stranger to this, as passenger volumes hit rock bottom at around two to three per cent of 2019 numbers and the airport only retained around 60 per cent of its overall workforce. The innovation and commercial IT team, headed up by Abhi Chacko, was made up of 14 people pre‑pandemic and this number is now seven. However, Chacko informs me that even though they are recruiting, they will not go back to the full 14 people any time soon: “We will try to work more efficiently and pick up ideas which are of higher value than going after many small items. That will be our strategy going forward.”
For the Commercial IT team, a large chunk of their work are focused outwards with the ground handlers, airlines and the retailers. During the pandemic, the Commercial IT team had to work with their airline partners and retailers to give them what they needed, and Chacko credits this to their commercial model which allows flexibility:
“When airlines and retailers decided that they didn’t want to occupy a specific area, or didn’t want a specific service, they could discontinue this after a month. We didn’t lock them in with a strict contract, so we always had a very flexible relationship with them. In some cases, where we closed down a terminal, we kept their network and infrastructure active by charging a minimum service fee so that we could reactivate quickly when passenger numbers picked up again and the terminal reopened.”
When it comes to Chacko’s proudest innovation achievement, he says that this is the Gatwick Airport Community App.
“It was a gap that I saw in the airport environment, particularly in the spirit of Gatwick, because Gatwick is very community focused. We wanted to bring everybody together, but I didn’t see that being extended to technology or digital platforms, even though everybody had a smartphone, even in 2012/13.”
Thus, Gatwick worked on this concept of a community app to bring the entire workforce and Gatwick campus together, regardless of whether they worked for the airlines, the airport, retailer, police, immigration, cleaning etc.
“As a concept, we wanted to flatten the hierarchy when it comes to operational information sharing. So, the CEO would get the same information as the ground handler who’s putting the bag into the aircraft, with everybody getting exactly the same information about how we are performing. It also removes the barrier or silos between the ground handler, the airline and the airport.”
This was certainly a gamble, which he acknowledges: “As a concept, I was very intrigued to see whether this was going to be accepted in the airport, because you are sharing information to multiple parties, without contract. Would it be a viable option? Would an airline object to publishing their on-time departure details to other airlines? Luckily, our airlines saw the value in it, didn’t object and in fact embraced it. It also creates healthy competition, a healthy way of communicating to everyone how everybody performs.”
The app was a success, but rather than keeping that innovation and idea exclusive to Gatwick, they worked with a start-up to build it as a multi‑airport platform.
“Instead of Gatwick doing it in-house, which would have made it very expensive, we worked with a start-up called AirportLabs to take the idea forward. The app is now used across 30+ global airports including several other VINCI Airports such as Lisbon, Lyon, Porto and Faro. The app is a living, breathing entity that doesn’t need to be continually fed directly by one airport exclusively, because if given to a group of airports to look after, it’ll keep growing because other airports are feeding it.”
Fostering innovation across the world
As one of the VINCI Airports Innovation Centres of Excellence (ICE), Gatwick and Abhi actively engage in joint idea creation, solution design and sharing across the group. The Gatwick ICE specialises in Flow Management and partners with the global VINCI Airports Operations unit to identify solutions to key challenges and look to scale them up as VINCI Airport products to benefit the overall group. In 2018, Chacko set up an Airport Innovation Forum. It invites innovation leaders from 20 different airports to exchange ideas. It is held monthly, and any airport is welcome to join. The philosophy behind this, or the raison d’être, is that people in airports are normally quite operationally focused; they do not have time to think about an idea that might be useful in one to three years from now. Also out of 10 ideas, only two might come to fruition as the rest will fail. It is a space where airports tell the group about the projects that they are running and report back on its success or failure, allowing airports to learn from each other and save money in the process.
For example, Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky Airport are running a trial on autonomous robots delivering food, which means that Chacko and his team will wait and see how this airport’s trial goes, rather than spend money on trying the same thing. During COVID, this Forum was also good for their mental health, he says, as the airports shared the challenges they were facing and ideas on how to solve problems.
Future technology strategy
When asked about Gatwick’s technology roadmap for the future, four key areas emerged.
App driven appliances
For Chacko, transformation of bag-drop and other passenger processing stages is something that he is particularly passionate about.
“You have seen the general technology trend of hardware devices being replaced by apps. Your camera, the navigation tool, the TV, radio, torch and compass. Everything is being replaced with apps on your phone. That trend is going to come to airports as well. So, instead of having a bag-drop machine with its own scanner and test screen, one could remove the brain of that bag-drop machine, leave the limbs, leave the appliance part, and use your smartphone as the processing engine or head of the appliance. So, instead of us loading 10 bag-drop applications onto each of our machines, we could just leave the bag-drop machine as an appliance. The passenger with an airline app would approach the machine and drive it using the app.”
The app would then print the tag, accept the bag, allowing the airline greater freedom in changing the way processing is done. For example, if Ryanair or easyJet or any other airline wanted to introduce a new baggage policy, they could do so without asking, or without interacting with 20 or 30 different airports and changing the bag-drop applications in 100s of bag drop machines. Instead, they can do this in the app and publish the new policy through app store, which is then implemented. If there’s an excess baggage fee that needs to be collected, the passenger can pay straight from their phone.
“Essentially, we are moving to a state where the authority for making decisions and the responsibility for implementing it are more aligned; because passenger processing at the airport is partially an airline domain, the airport will have the responsibility of the infrastructure which will cost at least 50 per cent less.” The start-up that Gatwick is working with is called Airware, and they will also work with their airline partners to explore this further. They have set up a lab in the airport which runs this particular system and are now inviting airlines to come and see the solution, and to gauge their interest.
Retail or smart restaurant platform
Bringing dynamic pricing, table availability and table booking all together in a smart restaurant platform is something that Gatwick will be working on and according to Chacko, no airport has cracked this fully. “From the passenger perspective, you know that there is something missing when you go into a departure lounge. You have offers from 10 different restaurants. Of course, you can go into individual restaurants, but making the decision of where to go is confusing for the traveller. Their family might want to go in three different restaurants and you don’t know the pricing comparison, unless you physically walk to each restaurant and look at the menu, which eats into your dwell time.”
Another major problem usually at Gatwick is that you cannot find seats.
“So, you may decide as a passenger, I can’t be bothered, I don’t want to stand in the queue in for this restaurant, so I will just walk to my gate. So, how do we make table availability visible for passengers? In terms of optimising yield, can we even adjust the pricing, lowering it when demand is low and keeping pricing higher when demand is very high? Can we make the menu dynamic, so it doesn’t show breakfast options in the evening, for instance?”
Gatwick is aiming to create a smart, multi‑restaurant platform for the departure lounge. It will be a barrier‑free entry to the digital platform either through the Wi-Fi landing page or through scanning a QR code on your mobile. You will be able to see which restaurants have tables available, with the option to book a table which will be held for 10 minutes. If you want order from multiple restaurants together and sit somewhere else then this will also be a possibility, for example the family could order from three different restaurants to one table.
Smart stands means Gatwick will instrument a few stands and gates, so that they can measure the operational performance at very granular level in terms of aircraft turnaround, the boarding start, boarding stop, how long does it take? When did the first passenger come out? When did the last passenger go in? The purpose of this is to learn and optimise the process using model stand or Smart Stand as a basis. Once the airport, ground handler, or airline learns it, they can apply the process changes as mitigation mechanisms across the airport.
Gatwick will also use Smart Stance to experiment with new technologies such as remote control jet bridge or autonomous jet bridge, or new technologies like AirTurn, a new handheld digital platform that allows ground handlers to update air traffic controllers about changes to the target off block time.
Innovation is not purely about technology-related innovation, but other types as well and sustainability is something that Gatwick is focusing on. Projects the airport is looking into include providing pre-conditioned air to the aircraft, allowing the aircraft to shut down the APU. They are also looking into the problem that pilots face with having to start their second engine three to five minutes when taxiing before take-off, but not knowing exactly when their take-off is. Gatwick is innovating to delay the second engine start time to the latest possible moment to save fuel-burn.
But… this is innovation
It was fantastic hearing about all the exciting projects that Chacko and his team at Gatwick Airport are working on, but he was quick to remind me that none of the above is a done deal “because this is innovation, which means we may fail, we may succeed, but it’s – I think – worthwhile.”
That said, we look forward to seeing what Gatwick has in store. Watch this space.
Airport development, COVID-19, Digital transformation, New technologies, Passenger experience and seamless travel, Passenger volumes, Security, Self-service, Sustainability, Terminal operations, Workforce