What great airports do differently

Guy near airline schedule

So here’s the scenario. You’re on a late flight home and will be arriving way past your bedtime. You’re staring morosely at the flight path on your entertainment screen when the intercom crackles to life. It’s the captain and he has some good news. Thanks to tail winds, the plane has enough fuel to take you straight to your destination. No refueling stop necessary. You can all expect to arrive an hour ahead of schedule. The plane erupts in cheers.

Three hours later, you’ve arrived. And just as the captain promised, you’re an hour early.

What’s likely to happen next?

A) You disembark, collect your luggage, and get home an hour early.
B) You wait thirty minutes to disembark and another half an hour for your baggage to turn up.
C) You disembark, hurry to baggage reclaim, and spend the next hour at the carousel waiting for your baggage to arrive.

It’s B) or C) isn’t it?

It was C) for me a few months ago and, boy, was I an unhappy passenger. The airport had known about the early arrival at least three hours beforehand. Why were they so unprepared? Wasn’t Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) supposed to prevent the kind of fiasco I’d just experienced?

Well, you’d think so, but the reality is rather different. While chatting with an airline executive recently, I mentioned A-CDM and waited for his response.

‘Yeah, I’ve heard that term for like ten years now. It’s just a term. It’s doing nothing.’

‘Doing nothing?’ I echoed. ‘It’s about exchanging data right?’

‘Yeah, exactly – and that’s where it ends.’

‘And no one is doing anything with the data?’ I asked somewhat hesitantly. A-CDM was evidently a sore subject.

‘Indeed! And that’s why I’ve stopped listening to conversations about it.’

If A-CDM isn’t the answer, what is?
One of the most famous scenes in operations management takes place in an airport. O’Hare, in fact. It’s where Alex Rogo, the hero of Goldratt’s ‘The Goal’, bumps into his mentor, Jonah.

Alex is excited about the robots he’s introduced in his manufacturing plant. Jonah is sceptical.

‘You say your plant uses robots?’ he asks.

‘In a couple of departments, yes,’ I say.

‘Have they really increased productivity at your plant?’

‘Sure they have,’ I say. ‘We had – what?’ I scan the ceiling for the figure. ‘I think it was a thirty-six percent improvement in one area.’

You don’t need me to tell you Jonah’s reply, but it’s worth repeating: ‘Then you didn’t really increase productivity.’

When the weakest link leaves the strongest impression
I think of Jonah’s reply when I read articles on ‘improving passenger experience’ or ‘the top ten must-have technologies of the airport of the future’. Many of the innovations center around automation and, yes, automation is needed. But it isn’t enough.

Automating parts of an interconnected system isn’t necessarily going to improve the performance of the system as a whole. The complex interdependencies among airport operations – check in, security, gate allocation, ground handlers, and the list goes on – mean that the weakest link creates the strongest impression on passengers.

If you’re a terminal manager, I think I know what you’re going to say – and it’s a valid objection: ’Do you really think my planners have time to work with oh… ten, eleven, twelve other departments, each with their own rules? Do you know how painful it is to get the planning done for their own team. There’s no time for collaboration. It’s impossible.’

I agree. It is humanly impossible. Which is why all those departments need a single planning platform with advanced optimization capabilities. To quote my colleague Arjen Heeres, ‘What’s often missing from high-tech shopping lists is the one item that’s going to be indispensable: the overarching technology that the great airport of the future will need to integrate the planning of all its processes, equipment and personnel. I call this overarching technology the Big Brain – or central intelligence – that integrates and constantly optimizes an airport’s operations. This Big Brain will intelligently and continuously answer the big question: Given everything that’s happening at the airport, which decisions will optimize the airport’s goals of maximizing passenger satisfaction and minimizing operating costs?’

From 10 – 12 March 2015, I’ll be at the Passenger Terminal Expo 2015. To find out more about how integrated planning and optimization is transforming terminal operations, drop by at the Quintiq booth. I look forward to seeing you there!

What’s missing from the airport of the future?




Marcel Dreef.

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Marcel Dreef

About Marcel Dreef

I love playing with numbers, words, pictures and music. And I want to do more of all of that, but time is always scarce. The desire to have more time is one of the reasons I am impatient with inefficiency, and why I enjoy lifehacking. But even then making conscious choices and careful planning are required to make it all work. In that sense I consider myself my most demanding customer. For my PhD research I spent 4 years studying the mathematics of poker and other casino games. I thought I wouldn't be able to find something even more fun to work on after that, but I am glad that I found Quintiq to prove myself wrong. As Neil Young sang in the year I was born: "In the field of opportunity it's plowin' time again!"