On Monday I had the pleasure of talking at International Airport Review’s International Airport Summit – an entirely virtual gathering of many of the world’s leading airport operators alongside technology and service providers.

It was a novel experience speaking to an audience over Zoom about our covid experience as an ANSP and airport service provider. Without any live audience reaction, you can’t tell if people are enraptured or drifting back to their emails, but hopefully given the interesting questions at the end and follow up conversations I’ve had since, people found it interesting and stimulating.

The world is a very different place than it was 10 months ago. The demands on us as an ANSP and the support our airport customers need are totally unlike what we were dealing with this time last year.

Covid has forced us all to adapt and in doing so we’ve learnt some valuable lessons. I wanted to share five of those with the audience.

1. Reduce costs to support operations

This year has shown the value of being flexible, with services that can be scaled and paused as required. Where our airport customers have asked us to do that, that’s exactly that we’ve done. But that has also meant working with airports to help them make the right decisions about turning on and off their ground-based infrastructure.

The decision to open and close stands, terminals and runways is an obvious way of managing costs, but it can also produce unexpected consequences and unplanned costs. We’ve been able to work with airports using our Demand Capacity Balancer tool to model things like the impact of closing particular stands on queues at border control, to allow them to make the best-informed decision possible.

2. Work to plan

We work with some of the world’s most capacity constrained airports, and up until this year a huge amount of our time was spent finding new ways to help them work to plan by improving operational resilience and predictability. That challenge has changed, but many of the same principles remain. We’re now faced with volatile airline schedules and limited ground-based resources, both of which can create unexpected bottlenecks and delays. Being able to plan ahead and identify those is a huge advantage.

Those who know me, know I’m a fan of the OODA loop – Observe, Orientate, Decide and Act. It’s a way of thinking about how we deal with operational disruption. Airports are such complex ecosystems that you can very quickly have multiple, conflicting OODA loops occurring at the same time. The more loops you have, the faster decision making breaks down and the worse a situation can become.

The OODA Loop

We can accelerate progress through those loops by offering airports access to authoritative and timely data and modelling tools that allow them to plan well in advance and refine those plans all the way to D minus one.

Our daily challenges may have changed but being able to plan and visualise each day and know how you would manage disruption in a covid world is an advantage we’ve been able to share with our airport customers. With reduced ground-based infrastructure and uncertain airline schedules, how would you manage a mass diversion scenario due to bad weather or a drone attack?

3. Queue management

I’ve already mentioned how the current environment can create unexpected consequences. Closing a terminal might generate unusually long arrival delays or queues at the border at unexpected times, for example. The question is whether we think this matters given everything else that’s going on. I think it does.

Now more than ever as an industry we need to be presenting passengers with the best possible experience so that they have confidence to fly again, and to share that experience with their friends and loved ones. Airports that lose sight of passenger experience as a key performance indicator are storing up problems further down the road.

4. Trials and business cases – now is the time

Times are undeniably tough for our industry, and I include NATS in that. As such, it could be understandable to focus solely on getting through what’s currently happening, but like all crises it also presents opportunities. With traffic levels so low, it’s actually a perfect time to trial new technologies or concepts and build business cases. In the UK we’ve started using Demand Capacity Balancer in the en-route environment to understand whether the modelling and predictive tools that have benefited airports would also work in the wider airspace to reduce delays once traffic returns.

Intelligent Approach training

We’re also currently working with LVNL to introduce Intelligent Approach – our dynamic aircraft separation tool – into Schiphol. Doing that in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t easy. We’ve had to be pretty innovative doing both remote and socially distant training and development, but doing that now means they’ll be set up to make the most of Intelligent Approach as soon as traffic returns.

5. Build back better

Is there room for ambition, even now? I believe that aviation is an intrinsic force for good in the world and the pandemic has reminded us all how much we rely on making human connections. Flying unites people, cultures and businesses while also employing 80 million people around the world, and yet it’s clear from growing public pressure that we must urgently address aviation’s contribution to climate change.

Navigating the COVID crisis is an enormous challenge for our industry, but we cannot afford to ignore the need to act on sustainability. In fact, it may be an opportunity to put in place lasting benefits in terms of operational efficiency and airspace design so we can continue to enjoy flying in the years and decades to come.

Find out more how NATS is supporting airports through the covid crisis at nats.aero/covid


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