Airports must 'build resilience' when systems fail, London Heathrow boss says at Davos

John Holland-Kaye calls on companies and rich countries to fund the transition to greener jet fuels

John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of London Heathrow Airport, speaks on a travel panel at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023 in Davos, Switzerland. Photo: WEF
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Airports need to focus on building resilience through greater automation and collaboration as the aviation industry ramps up capacity following the Covid-19 pandemic, London Heathrow's boss said in Davos.

“We need to automate a lot more of the journey, we would all benefit from that … but you also need to build resilience in and that is part of the opportunity I think,” chief executive John Holland-Kaye told a panel at the World Economic Forum on Tuesday.

“When you drive down cost, you very often take out resilience, you have machines doing things that people used to do and when the machine fails there's no person there as a back-up and that's something we need to work on as a system.”

When automation at airports fails, back-up systems are needed, Mr Holland-Kaye said, underscoring the impact of “fragmentation” in the industry.

Since no individual company “has enough people”, the airport operator can step in to support airlines with procedures such as check-in and baggage handling so that passengers can “have a seamless journey regardless of how well the systems might be working”, he said.

“We've got an over-complex ecosystem and we've got to look at how we can simplify it, focused on the consumer,” he added.

Mr Holland-Kaye's comments come shortly after a system problem led US authorities to temporarily ground planes across the country last week following a malfunction in a key system used by pilots before take-off.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said the disruption stemmed from problems with the Notice to Air Missions system — Notam — which conveys advisory information essential for flight operations.

On the need for sustainable travel, Mr Holland-Kaye said that tourism-dependent destinations were also suffering from the impact of climate change.

He played down a reduction in travel as a solution to curb the aviation industry's carbon footprint, urging instead for companies and rich nations to fund the transition to cleaner jet fuels.

The aviation industry needs to switch to sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which can be produced in future by developing countries with agricultural resources, but that will require funding, Mr Holland-Kaye said.

What caused the air travel disruption across the US?

Delta Airlines planes taxi at LaGuardia airport in New York on January 11, 2023 - The US Federal Aviation Authority  said Wednesday that normal flight operations "are resuming gradually" across the country following an overnight systems outage that grounded departures.  (Photo by Ed JONES  /  AFP)

“If you are a financier or an energy company, you need to be investing in these countries to help develop that sector and give them some energy-independence,” he said.

“As individuals and as companies we need to be paying the premium for SAF, so we can bring the cost of it down so that the developing countries don't have to be paying for the energy transition.

“The wealthy people in this room and the wealthy nations should be funding the energy transition in aviation to help support developing countries.”

Companies which make up 30 per cent of fuel use in aviation should switch to SAF and develop policies such as internal surcharges on flights to help fund the development of greener fuels, he said.

The airport chief dismissed the idea of people travelling less as a way to reduce carbon emissions for the aviation industry, noting that this is not a viable option outside northern Europe.

“We need a solution that changes the energy use, not changes the ability to travel,” Mr Holland-Kaye said.

“Travel is a wonderful thing … the answer is not to stop travelling, it's to change the energy we use on the planes that get us there.”

Updated: January 18, 2023, 5:45 AM