Innovation in Aviation

In recent times, INNOVATION seems to be a word that everyone uses, more as a question than as a direction.

At the recent AVSEC2019 at ICAO, innovation was discussed as a solution to the challenges ahead. ICAO then hosted INNOVATION FAIR 2019 at its facility in Montreal and many exhibitors and speakers addressed the topic. It seems that everyone has been focusing on Innovation as a way to improve what is already in place. We try to communicate better and faster through networks of fiber optics and all.

We should not confuse innovation with improvement. Improvement aims at making smoother processes, stronger infrastructure, better-trained workforce, etc. Innovation, on the other hand, aims at finding new ways of doing things, reinventing the current structures, redesigning today’s organizations.

ICAO did just that when it introduced USOAP more than 10 years ago. This was even more evident with the CMA approach. This Continuous Monitoring Approach is a good way to improve overall safety oversight while utilizing fewer resources. It is a matter of redesigning a process that allows achieving more with less.

If we move to other areas of the industry, we have seen an important increase in demand for air transport which has led to an important increase in the resources used. As demand increases, we review Airport Master Infrastructure Plans to accommodate the forecasted numbers in years to come.

As the number of passengers increases, we have increased the number of security checkpoints and somewhat modified the process with better equipment as we find in Amsterdam or with CATSA and others.

So, as the number of passengers and flight movements increase, we re-arrange our apron, add runways, focus more on ACI’s Airport Service Quality surveys to please our users even more.

How do we intend to handle twice as many passengers as we do today within the next 20 years or so? This is the question that innovation must address.

We cannot continue into the future simply by adding more and more. We need to think differently. That is what innovation does: looking at what everyone sees but seeing it differently. To innovate, we first need to have the desire to change, to look not through the window but at the outdoors for new spaces and shapes and new dimensions.

Aircraft manufacturers are constantly looking for new design and new materials and new equipment that will bring quieter aircraft (thus reducing the need for curfew), stronger and lighter materials (contributing to lighter aircraft and longer autonomy), new fuel (reducing the carbon footprint and eliminating the need for carbon tax and the likes).

Airlines are also considering new routes. increasing revenues (and hopefully profit), new partnerships (improving connectivity for their passengers and optimizing the use of their equipment),

Air Navigation Service providers studying new patterns à la SESAR (improving harmonization for shorter flight times and improving safety), installing new equipment and procedures *reducing costs and improving airline performance), developing new procedures (better coordination among stakeholders).

ICAO influencing the industry with greater harmonization and maybe standardization among the member States. Although ICAO levels (Standards) are at the bottom rather than at the top.

Each of the key stakeholders gives the impression that it works for the greater benefit of the user and that it is prepared to coordinate with other industries in achieving better performance. Many partnerships have been created between ICAO and others like ACI (AMPAP), States (CORSIA), IATA (Dangerous Goods), CANSO (ASBU Aviation System Block Upgrades); ACI and IATA on A-CDM; and many other such partnerships.

The individual objectives of the various groups often overshadow the common objectives of the industry if not of the world.

We often hear that The air transport industry is one of the best prototypes of a future world where all activities in the system are integrated.  Well, maybe, but when it is so, it is generally because the individual objectives of the groups have found takers.

Airlines complain that governments impose taxes on air transport, reducing the potential of greater demand.

Airports complain that airlines too often oppose investments in new facilities, thus limiting the revenue potential of airports.

Air Navigation Services Providers often complain that they are pressured for more efficiency, thus interfering with safety.

Governments complain that the industry balks at implementing or complying with regulations as set by States in compliance with ICAO.

And in all this, ICAO tries to bring States to a consensus on various directions: PKD, CORSIA, ASBUs, etc. None of which have yet attracted 100% of the member States.

Unfortunately, ICAO has little power, if any, toward its members. At least the other big 3 can decide to expel a member from the association (except for IATA, it probably never happens), but ICAO, as a United Nations agency could never do that, expel a Member State.

At the recent ICAO General Assembly, concluded October 4th, an eminent State has complained about the perceived inefficiency of ICAO. Their representation requested transparency, better decision making, a positive work environment, leveraging partnerships with other stakeholders, and increasing the effectiveness of ICAO. I would suggest that the same applies to individual stakeholders and their individual members. By individual members, I mean airlines, ANSPs, governments, and of course airports.

Combining this objective or ‘objectives’ with innovation means that we must find new ways of determining the future, particularly in the face of current megatrends[1]. In the airport world of today, in view of twice the volumes within the next 15 years or so, the question then again becomes “How can we handle twice as many passengers with smaller terminals than we have today?”

The answer to this question will come from more agile organizations. Agility will come with more accountability driven down the leadership ladders after having eliminated a few rungs in this corporate ladder. Accountability comes with more strategic and systemic thinking. Strategic and systemic thinking will come with a better understanding of the corporate goals and objectives, understanding the role that everyone plays within the organization, greater involvement in the decision process. All of this leads to more satisfied employees, more satisfied passengers and more satisfied shareholders.

Investing in competency development of the workforce has a huge payback in terms of innovation. Processes can be best improved by those who execute them. Return on investment can be measured in terms of efficiency over a relatively short period (4 to 6 months maybe) and motivation will also increase and the degree of involvement, accountability, suggestions, creativity, will also be exponential as the sense of contribution and realization increases,

Many of the services can be pushed outside of the airport terminal for greater efficiency. Check-in services are already done largely online and can be pushed further by conducting baggage checks and drops outside either downtown as done in Hong Kong and other airports or on parking lots and curb sides or at convention centers, etc. Security screening of those can also be done remotely on cruise ships and passengers and bags transported by secure buses or vehicles directly unto the aircraft or departure hold-room.

Some airports have already started selling duty-free online thus reducing the space required without losing corresponding revenues. Those are only a few examples of how we can handle more with less. The same thinking applies to other stakeholders and segments of the industry.

There is a need for a joint approach like A-CDM (AVIATION collaborative decision-making instead of airport A-CDM). Innovation in the industry must come through a more collaborative approach, breaking down silos and increasing collaboration. It is exactly the same that is required within the airport sector. Greater collaboration, breaking down the silos will encourage better accountability within the airport team and with the various stakeholders within the airport’s reach.

In order to create this greater collaboration, we must focus on “COMPETENCY DEVELOPMENT” of the workforce as a means to greater flexibility of organizations, more agile decision-making, more motivating work environment, more stable workforce, more adequate utilization of infrastructure, more efficient processes, more satisfied employees, more satisfied passengers and customers, more satisfied shareholders (whoever they are), individuals or governments).

Jean-Marc Trottier

Vice-Chairman, ASI & Executive Director, ASI Institute

[1] Megatrends as recognized in the “Global Megatrends and Aviation: a Path to Future-Wise Organizations, ASI-Institute 2019,