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Part one: The Airport Risk Community (ARC) on talent, technology and transformation

By Darren Porter | January 2, 2024

ARC members met in London in November to discuss how the industry is evolving and how the insurance sector is working to support the changes. Part 1 of 2.

Airports are a part of a nation’s critical infrastructure, but they are also complex ecosystems that were put under immense strain by the responses to COVID-19 between 2020 and 2022. With the aviation industry reporting that demand is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels[1], this was an excellent time to bring the Airport Risk Community (ARC) together at the 4th annual WTW Airport Conference, this time in London.

The event covered a lot of ground, and in this first part of a two-part round-up we will examine some of the key issues that emerged in a conference that was focused on talent, technology and transformation.

Building resilient infrastructure

The conference, which brought together 170 professionals from across the aviation and insurance spectrum as well as further afield, was opened by Toby Harris, Baron Harris of Haringey who has a keen interest in the aviation sector as part of his role as Chair of the UK’s National Preparedness Commission.

Airports are essential, complex and fragile ecosystems”

Lord Toby Harris | Chair, National Preparedness Commission, UK

He offered his reflections on the importance of airports within national infrastructure as well as the challenges that have been faced over the last few years. “Airports are essential, complex and fragile ecosystems,” he observed. “They are also high value targets for terrorists and have the potential to attract protest over the next few years. There is a risk that protests could be used as cover for terrorists.”

Lord Harris’ speech set the agenda for the two days of conference sessions, touching on the need to approach the potential for risk and disruption over the next few years with eyes open and ensure effective investment in preparation and resilience. As he pointed out, part of the problem is knowing where to put that investment given the variety of risks that face the airport sector. Lord Harris suggested that if preparation and resilience is built into an agile organisation, it is more likely to respond effectively to risk becoming reality, irrespective of the nature of the event. You can’t prepare for every eventuality, you simply have to make sure that you have the people and processes in place to give you the best chance of reacting effectively.

Lord Harris concluded his observations with a quote from former US President John F. Kennedy: “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.”

Community and sustainability

One of the benefits of ARC is that it brings together expertise from across the aerospace sector. Representing the airports themselves, Roelof-Jan Steenstra, President and CEO of Ports Toronto which operates Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport in Canada, discussed how the organization strives to ensure that its services are integrated into the local transport infrastructure as well as deeply embedded into the local community.

We are constantly looking for ways to show that we are being responsible.”

Roelof-Jan Steenstra | President and CEO, Ports Toronto

Ports Toronto’s commitment to its community is an overarching part of its philosophy and runs through all of its planning and development processes. “It’s not just a question of investing in the community by writing a cheque, it’s about actively engaging and having a constant conversation,” Steenstra says. “We don’t have a lot of space and it’s a unique environment where we work, so we have to be creative and innovative in everything that we do. We are constantly looking for ways to show that we are being responsible.”

Mark Edwards, Head of Sustainability at Gatwick Airport, also underscored the importance of ensuring that an airport is considered to be a good neighbour. He also discussed the steps that are being taken to ensure that the UK’s second busiest airport honours its environmental responsibilities and its decision to publicly aim for net zero status by 2030.

Miraç Pekmezci, Istanbul International Airport’s Financial Director, described the challenges and outcomes of developing one of the world’s largest aviation infrastructure projects that has delivered massive efficiency improvements for airline customers in a country that bridges Europe and Asia.

Talent and the generational challenge

One of the largest challenges facing the aviation industry as a whole is the need to attract talent to the industry. Maruchy Cantu, Executive Vice President of Administration and Diversity at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, examined the issue in detail, leading a panel that touched on airport staffing returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Staffing levels have recovered since COVID-19, but the skills and knowledge have yet to recover”

Maruchy Cantu | Executive Vice President of Administration and Diversity, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport

Reflecting on what happened during the pandemic, Cantu highlighted one of the consequences of the knowledge gap. “Staffing levels have recovered since COVID-19, but the skills and knowledge have yet to recover,” she suggested. “It means that airports have an increased risk of luggage delays, near misses and skirt issues that weren’t as prevalent prior to the pandemic.”

Based on this observation, Cantu impressed that it was even more important to make sure that human capital was relatively high on the risk agenda. Attracting, engaging and retaining the right talent has become more challenging than ever before because of employees’ willingness to change jobs and even industries, particularly when they feel their skills could be better applied elsewhere and if they feel that an organizational culture isn't right for them.

Lydia Price, Head of Aviation Skills for the UK’s Department of Transport, joined Cantu on stage for a discussion around how the aviation industry can attract Generation Z. Price discussed the role governments can play in demystifying regulation around aviation and enabling the aviation industry to help itself. She pointed out that decarbonization is a huge challenge but also a phenomenal opportunity to get out and explain the work that the industry is carrying out as it moves into its new era.

Nicolas Kesteloot, Head of Organisational Development, Human Resources, at the Brussels Airport Company, also joined Cantu on stage. He reiterated the importance of community to his organization and discussed the emphasis that Brussels Airport puts on creating connections between people and organizations. From his perspective, this is as important as simply being a hub that moved planes.

Embracing emerging technologies

Reflecting the diversity of perspectives that ARC always likes to deliver with its conferences, Cantu’s final guest on stage was Olya Kudina, Assistant Professor, Ethics/Philosophy of Technology at Delft University of Technology. She highlighted the potentially disruptive nature of artificial intelligence (AI) across every industry, but also focused on how it could be a tool of job creation, particularly among the emerging generation of workers.

AI excites and terrifies us in equal measure, but it’s here and we need to harness it.”

Rachel Barrie | Group Chief Executive of Global Aerospace

Speaking later in the event, Rachel Barrie, Group Chief Executive of Global Aerospace, suggested that “AI excites and terrifies us in equal measure, but it’s here and we need to harness it. There is a lot of ways that it can be used to help with day-to-day activities. For insurers, it could be so useful at analyzing data and predicting incidents so it will help us assess risk far more efficiently.”

Sticking with the theme of technology, it is difficult to look at the aviation sector at the moment and not see the emergence of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles and their associated infrastructure as something that will be at the centre of developments over the next decade.

Indeed, Vicki Murdie, Future Flight Challenge Innovation Lead at UK Research and Innovation, suggested that what we are witnessing is the third revolution in the aviation industry after the Wright brother’s first powered flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft in 1903 and Sir Frank Wittle’s invention of the turbojet in 1937. She emphasized the need for open collaboration between government and industry in order to make the most of the opportunities that face the industry.

Reflecting on the imminent revolution, John Reavy, Director, Transport Practice and Principle Account Leader for Aviation at Mott MacDonald, and Ankit Dass, Chief Technology and Product Officer at Skyports, took the conference through the process of finding suitable sites for the vertiports of the future, whether that was alongside existing airports or at new facilities in cities and towns.

There are several fascinating challenges that the eVTOL industry needs to grapple with as it moves from concept to testing phases, not least of which is that participants in the sector have yet to coalesce around a standard for battery and charging design. This potentially means that vertiports will need to accommodate several charging options, each of which will have different risk profiles and infrastructure requirements at sites where space could be at a premium.

Risk profiles are also a challenge in terms of what vertiports will actually be: on the one hand, in some cases they will be scaled down airports, requiring similarly comprehensive security requirements, but on the other hand they could also evolve into something akin to a metro or tube station, requiring rapid passenger throughput with minimal customer support. As Dass pointed out, passengers need to feel safe and secure, but they don’t want to have to worry about security, so there is a need to achieve a balance between effective and inobtrusive security. Accommodating these potential requirements will demand careful consideration as the eVTOL sector moves into its commercial launch phase over the next few years.

The 2023 ARC Conference covered a lot of ground, with many of the speakers reinforcing each other’s perspectives and the attendees’ discussions during the wider event. The next article focuses on the evolution of the UK’s airspace from an efficiency and an environmental perspective. It also looks more widely at the environmental agenda as the aerospace sector moves to balance the requirements of customers, regulators, owners and shareholders, with its responsibilities to the wider community. It wraps up with an overview of the insurance focused panel discussion that concluded the event.


  1. September Passenger Demand Provides Solid End to Third Quarter, IATA. Return to article

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