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“This is innovation” with Abhi Chacko

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21 December 2022

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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.”

Innovation achievement

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.

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