Using operational readiness to re-energise airport infrastructure

International air travel looks set to return to our skies as vaccination programmes help nations across the world emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. The challenge facing airport operators is bringing their mothballed terminal capacity back online rapidly, aligned with new COVID-safe regulations, and meeting the evolving needs of airlines and passengers.

By Luuk van Mourik, Lead Consultant and Gavin Steele, Global Head of Aviation 

Airports are complex pieces of infrastructure. To maintain the safety, security and efficiency of millions of passenger journeys, airport operators rely on the cooperation and deep collaboration between multiple stakeholders responsible for delivering the passenger experience and business outcome.

This complexity has turned the aviation industry into a finely tuned machine, managing passengers, freight and aircraft movements while simultaneously operating vast shopping and hospitality venues; it is a machine which, in virtually the blink of an eye, was largely switched off in early 2020 as the pandemic swept throughout the globe. Just over a year later, the process of bringing this vital industry back into operation is slowly starting to emerge.

Any change to an airport’s infrastructure, be that a temporary closure caused by a global pandemic, a refurbishment programme, airline move or the opening of a brand-new facility, increases operational complexity. The challenge facing operators today as they start to bring terminal capacity back online, is to ensure that this does not become complicated.

Embracing Operational Readiness, Activation and Transition (ORAT) methodology

With such a massive task, avoiding complication is far from easy. So much so that the internationally recognised Operational Readiness, Activation and Transition (ORAT) methodology now exists as the foundation to help guide airport operators and stakeholders, a protocol developed specifically for the 1992 Munich Airport move.

At the time, this was the largest ever airport move in Europe and saw 5,000 people and 700 trucks successfully transfer operations overnight from the original Riem site to the new Franz Josef Strauss Airport, in time for flights to continue the next morning.

Yet despite this clear understanding of the risks, and the existence of such established guidance, the history of modern air travel is littered with examples of disruptive airport terminal openings as operators fail to grasp the challenge of turning a completed empty building into a fully functioning transport hub.

And now, airport operators face an unprecedented moment of post-COVID-19 change.

While it is highly likely that in the long term public and business demand and desire to travel will return to previous growth patterns, it is clear that aviation infrastructure will need to change to meet new regulations, new legislation, new passenger demands and new airline business models which will inevitably emerge in the ‘new normal’.

Understanding the new aviation business model

The reality is that global passenger numbers are unlikely to start their return to originally forecast levels until around 2023/2024, according to the latest IATA information. Post-pandemic there is a new realisation that much of the past business travel boom can be replaced by video calls.

Additionally, the significant ramping up of global efforts to reduce carbon emissions means the net result is an acceleration in the change to airline business models, potentially moving away from the larger aircraft towards smaller more efficient and flexible aircraft. All of which leaves major question marks over the timing and extent of the reopening of global airport capacity.

So ahead of any post-COVID airport openings, operational plans will inevitably need to be refreshed. That means examining what type of aircraft will be used, whether the entire terminal or just part of the asset will be used, and how the revised passenger journey will look in the terminal.

Add into this the extra complexity from constant review of national lockdown regulations, additional border closures and travel restrictions for follow-on destinations which make it hard for airport operators to predict and commit to anything beyond short term capacity needs. 

Normally when a terminal is reopened after a refurbishment or upgrade, operators plan a series of operational readiness trials that build confidence before the opening of the facility. Instead, due to the pandemic we are now seeing terminals opening and closing rapidly as border restrictions change to control the virus.

The result is that operators and airlines are having to adopt a more flexible approach in bringing back to life their airport facilities, using operational readiness principles that they would normally apply to new or refurbished infrastructure.

1. ORAT – start with the end in mind

This is not the first time that the aviation sector has had to respond to a global crisis by shutting airports and restricting air travel. The cancellation of large parts of the global air travel business following the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 and in 2010 the closure of European airspace for several weeks following a volcanic eruption in Iceland are examples where operators had to radically rethink and review their operations.

However, this latest global aviation closure presents a much bigger reopening challenge and prompts a genuine step change in the way airports will operate in future. While post-911 the focus was around security and rethinking the entire passenger and freight screening protocols, post-COVID airport reopening will require more fundamental change to the way that people and businesses use the infrastructure.

Embracing elements of the ORAT methodology with a dedicated, focused team and specific programme that ’starts with the end in mind’, remains central to ensuring the future success of this global post-COVID airport restart.

That means establishing a tightly defined schedule of activities, with clearly delineated phases and interdependencies required to be completed ahead of opening day. 

For the airport operator, engaging as early as possible with stakeholders – airlines, ground handlers, police, immigration, customs, airport operational teams, third party commercial operators, facility management, IT and air traffic control – is crucial to discover and log their needs and so avoid disappointments and objections down the line. To be successful, it is imperative airport operators are engaged with early by governments as decisions are made on border restrictions. 

Breaking down historic silos that typically exist in airport organisations and stakeholders is a crucial task for the operational readiness team. Construction and facilities management teams are typically disconnected from the operational teams focused on running the customer-facing activities.

For any reopening to be a success, this has to change. One of the tools that can be used to overcome the disconnect between stakeholders is common data platforms. This digital technology supports capital works and operational intelligence and helps to ensure all stakeholders are working in a common data environment towards a shared goal.

With a short-term focus in mind, operators are now challenged with bringing assets back to life as a result of the rapidly changing passenger demand. Using elements of the ORAT methodology will help operators to get a good understanding of the condition of the assets that are being entered back into service. ORAT-fit checks and basic trials of facilities and systems should be included as part of a holistic approach to re-energising the airport assets.

Undertaking these checks will allow the operator to understand the condition of the assets, confirm the sequence of opening and determine if the asset meets revised passenger operations. By applying this methodology, even when using shorter timelines, will provide a structured framework for entering terminals and airside facilities back into service and avoid a flawed re-opening.  

2. Governance – building the right team

Airport operators are experts at operating their airports – managing the airlines, running their shopping malls and duty free and providing a seamless ‘pain-free’ experience for the passengers. Any change to that status quo to reconfigure the use of existing capacity will require the operational readiness team to focus on a new set of critical delivery priorities.

To achieve this, the operational readiness team must be fully aligned with the operational teams and airport stakeholders and be backed by a single point of contact at the highest level within the client organisation. This ensures that the team is not seen as being parachuted in but instead is bonded within existing activities with the required authority to lead the project and drive change. 

In addition, a successful reopening requires a named figure to have overall responsibility for delivering that operational terminal facility. Too often, the skills base within airport management means focus is either on delivering a building or on delivering the operations.

In reality, what is needed is a leader who can bring that entire facility into operation – somebody who sits across all teams with the ultimate responsibility to make things happen.

3. Flexible from the start

In the complex world of airports, change is an inevitable fact of life. However, it is the decisions taken at the beginning of the planning process that usually determine the success or failure of any terminal opening – be that of a new facility or after a temporary closure. The ORAT methodology understands this reality and is designed to get an early operational view that heads off potential problems later.

However, there is a limit to the amount of change that can be made to any terminal opening programme – whether driven by airline needs, legal or planning restrictions, safety issues or environmental concerns. The challenge for the operational readiness team is to help the stakeholders live with new scenarios and create any necessary operational workarounds to ensure the facility still meets its overarching operational targets. 

The key is to assemble the right mix of people, between those with operational responsibility and those that are responsible for constructing, modifying and managing the assets.

Given that every airport around the world has its own way of managing critical operations such as security, immigration, commercial retail or airline activities, representation from the airport operator in operational readiness teams is crucial.

Fundamentally, people need to be open and ready to embrace change and able to engage and problem solve with the operational readiness team to get the right balance between the needs of the operational side of the airport and those of the asset management. Flexibility is key for this kind of complex programme and both operational teams and delivery teams need to work together to meet that common goal.

For further information contact:

Luuk van Mourik
Lead consultant

t: +971566876945