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A sustainable reset

The critical human factors in rebuilding airport operations

Aerospace
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Karen Larbey and Darren Porter | September 3, 2020

This article summarises some of the key highlights of the first episode of the webinar series “A sustainable reset” organised by the Willis Towers Watson Airport Risk Community.

As airport owners and operators look to prepare for post-pandemic business growth, they may be doing so with employees who are increasingly anxious, distracted and concerned about their finances, according to a new survey conducted by Willis Towers Watson1.

The survey, which consulted more than 230,000 employees across multiple companies, sectors and geographies, revealed that more than half were suffering from a moderate or high degree of anxiety and a third had similar levels of financial stress.

That information formed one of the key talking points delivered by a panel of experts hosting the first in a series of webinars that Willis Towers Watson is offering to replace its annual Airport Risk Community (ARC) conference this year.

More than 200 attendees were advised that the emotional and physical wellbeing of employees will be critical to the overall health of their organisations, and that management of those people risks will directly affect the speed at which their businesses can recover.

One panellist, Damien Trower, the head of security at Gatwick Airport, offered a frank assessment of the industry’s pandemic-depleted workforce by alluding to a perfect storm, where human factors meet with unprecedented financial challenges.

With workforces depleted in line with business volumes, employees are benefitting less from the levels of management oversight and peer regulation that were available to them before the pandemic struck, Mr. Trower said.

With leadership at a premium – and restrictions on revenue and capital expenditure unlikely to ease in the short term – wholesale management cuts, while tempting, are best avoided, he said.

“We need to keep an eye on recovery. Talented and experienced individuals are extremely difficult to attract and retain. They are the ones that make the most direct contributions to security performance,” Mr. Trower said. “It takes about a year to recruit and grow a good security manager. In these challenging times, you need a dynamic leadership team.”

Talented and experienced individuals are extremely difficult to attract and retain. They are the ones that make the most direct contributions to security performance”

Damien Trower | Head of Security, Gatwick Airport

While strategies to keep airport users and employees safe and secure have long been part of the facilities’ operational documents, operators are not finding similar guidance for assuring human ‘wellness’ – either physical or emotional.

Airports usually have health specialists, but most have limited experience with operations and planning. And while security personnel may have experience with operations, they may have limited health backgrounds, and may lack the skillsets and qualifications to manage the general public.

Among the human factors that operators must manage, the pandemic has raised the importance of assuring employee wellness is higher on the risk register, according to Göksu Güney, Head of Operations at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen International Airport.

“Before the pandemic, if you would have asked me for our top three issues, they would have been safety, security, and any business that impacts your bottom line,” Mr. Güney told webinar attendees. “What we have now found is that wellness needs to sit right beside safety and security for passengers and employees.”

Assuring wellness helps employees to cope with stress; it also can build confidence that any COVID-related risks are being managed, helping airports to retain their attractiveness as places to work. Critically, the latter also helps operators to compete for or retain the most valuable employees as the industry focus slowly shifts to capacity building.

Wellness helps employees to cope with stress; it also can build confidence that any COVID-related risks are being managed, helping airports to retain their attractiveness as places to work

“Employers need to think of ways to build human capital resilience, which means investing in people while managing your labour costs. That is the fundamental challenge,” Amol Mhatre, Managing Director of Integrated Capital Solutions at Willis Towers Watson told attendees. “Currently, the people who are responsible for safety and health may lack the skillsets to build wellness and human capital resilience. That is important.”

In regions where the virus appears to be in remission, cash-strapped operators looking to rebuild their workforces are facing unprecedented uncertainty. Medium term decisions – to hire, rehire, retrain and retain – need to be made with one eye on the longer term, even though the future has never been harder to predict.

Medium term decisions – to hire, rehire, retrain and retain – need to be made with one eye on the longer term, even though the future has never been harder to predict

Forecasting is proving to be a significant challenge, according to Gatwick’s Damien Trower. In an industry that is used to dealing with oceans of data, the sector is working with projections that make planning and resourcing supremely difficult.

Despite clear challenges from data shortages, the industry has at its disposal modelling techniques such as Mott McDonald’s ‘infrastructure epidemiology’ to help increase confidence in infrastructure for passengers and employees, according to Chris Chalk, the company’s Global Sector Lead for aviation.

Mr. Chalk said, because epidemiology is a quantitative and data-driven science, its analytical methods complement those used in the aviation sector.

“Central to epidemiology is the rating of risk and exposures, including the modification of those exposures with various interventions to reduce the risk of disease,” Mr. Chalk said. “These are principles that can be applied across many forms of infrastructure to create a public health based approach that can help asset owners to restore services and rebuild public confidence.”

According to Mr. Mhatre, the road to recovery will have three key requirements: reimagining the nature of the work (in part through a greater use of automation and digitalisation), building human capital resilience and optimising labour costs, so airports can afford to rehire and add the new skillsets they need.

“Much of this will take investment, so the focus should be on finding ways to eliminate underutilised human capital programmes and cost, allowing operators to direct that investment into people strategies that matter,” he said.

As airport operators take the first cautious steps to realign their businesses to the new post pandemic environment, industry collaboration and information sharing events such as Willis Towers Watson’s ARC webinar series will help to build community resilience to guide that recovery.

Footnote

1 Willis Towers Watson Employee Opinion Norm Database results as at May 2020, representing over 230,000 employees of 50+ unique companies.

Authors

Karen Larbey
Airport Risk Community Leadership

Darren Porter
Managing Director, Aerospace

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