Airports, take note: how to put resilience first

posted on 20th November 2019
Airports, take note: how to put resilience first

Airports face a range of challenges in a rapidly shifting modern environment: from climate change to technology, and even within their own communities. A report by Thornton Tomasetti and Resilience First aims to unpick these issues and produce an airport guide to resilience.

Airports are constantly looking for ways to adapt in a rapidly changing business environment, and one word stands out as a mantra for survival in trying times: resilience.

“Resilience is the ability to absorb and adapt in a changing environment,” said Richard Look, Senior Resilience Consultant at global engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, which specialises in tackling the issue of resilience at all scales, from cities to buildings and organisations.

“And so when you break that [resilience] down a bit further, it’s the ability of any entity or organisation to absorb a shock – like a flood or a fire etc – to absorb that shock and not be derailed by it.”

Thornton Tomasetti teamed up with Resilience First – a not-for-profit business organisation that aims to improve business resilience in urban areas – to produce a study of airports and their business partners, in order to identify best practice and areas for improvement in resilience, especially agility.

“Airports are microcosms of business communities—in effect, mini-cities—where companies are working together for the common purpose of serving customers,” said Robert Hall, Executive Director of Resilience First.

“Our study has revealed that there is still much to do to make the component parts work more harmoniously and holistically. In this way, greater value for all can be achieved in both normal and abnormal situations.”

According to Look, the two main forces at work within the area of resilience are called shocks and stresses. A shock, as previously mentioned, is a one-off event that causes some disruption and then fades away – a fire, security breaches, cyber-attacks, to name but a few. But stresses are forces that are constantly moving, with technological change being a key example.

“We know that there’s a whole series of technological issues coming into the arena of airports which are going to be disruptive and force change,” said Look.

“The organisations which have high agility…they have much less change resistance, because they have to keep on moving the organisation through a change or transformation cycle.”

“And so in the short, medium and long term, more agile organisations should survive better in the future, take advance of any opportunities and sidestep any hazards.”

A quick note on agility – for the purposes of this report, Look used the McKinsey definition for the concept, which is: the ability of an organisation to renew itself, adapt, change quickly, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment.

And there are two main ways you can orient your organisation in such a way, said the Senior Resilience Consultant: you can create hard-engineered solutions to protect yourself, i.e. make your structures more robust, or add layers of security; or you can be more adaptive, by creating a community of people, a culture within your organisation which accepts a certain way of thinking.

“So in this report we were looking at that second aspect,” said Look. “So looking at airports, primarily Stansted and the Manchester Airport Group, and also some of their organisations, and how well they are structured in terms of their culture to be agile, for all intents and purposes.”

Look was keen to stress that the guidance laid out in the report is very generic and could be helpful, not just to airports, but to the entire business community that surrounds them.

Indeed, the issues that confront airports are global in nature – take the climate crisis, for example. Protests at airports became something of a trend in 2019 and are surely set to continue in years to come, unless the aviation industry takes urgent action to mitigate its carbon footprint.

“It’s interesting that EasyJet is moving to electric,” said Look, referencing the British budget airline’s plans to test a nine-seater electric plane as early as next year.

“And I think airlines moving to electric pose huge infrastructure issues on airports, because there’s this huge amount of energy they need. But on the other hand, it may – definitely may, not will – allay some climate fears, depending on where the energy comes from.

“So it’s an interesting one, because airports are obviously absolutely critical to the economy – so we get a philosophical debate about extinction rebellion and about how it goes about its business. Does it really want to damage the economy, is there not a way we can achieve both things: not damaging the economy, while still reducing our carbon dioxide emissions?”

Another way Look foresees airports changing in the future is through the use of a technology which hit headlines for the wrong reasons with Uber, but has also been trialled at Heathrow in the form of driverless baggage dollies.

“There’s a lot of speculation at the moment about self-driving cars, self-guided vehicles are going to come to maturity fairly rapidly,” said Look.

“They also pose a huge change to the way airports function, because airports get a significant amount of revenue from car parking. Would car parks become an irrelevant piece of infrastructure when people can just send their cars home, rather than paying airport fees?”

All things considered, the take home message from the report, said Look, is the element around strong leadership being important, strong leadership that engages the business, but also business partners and the business community.

“[This] help reduce barriers to change, but also improves information flow – so when you’re dealing with shock it will improve your ability to deal with shock, and dealing with stress it will reduce change resistance and therefore you will be able to adapt to future change more quickly,” said Look.

“Ultimately we are on a change curve which is constantly accelerating, so we don’t know what the change will be, but we do know that change is coming, and it’s accelerating. So the quicker you can identify and adapt to that change, the quicker you will be able to take competitive advantage and mitigate any losses.”