Airport Innovation: 7 Easy Ways for Airports to Innovate

  Editor's note: Apologies for the delay in sending you this month's article which was due to website DNS issues. The wait is worth it as you will see from this nice airport innovation post by new guest contributor Anna Harrison. Anna lives in Australia and works with companies worldwide. Take a read and enjoy the beautiful colorful images.

Innovation is today’s uber-hot bandwagon. Chances are, your organizational chart has sprouted a branch dedicated to Innovation, and if it has not, it soon will. But is the formation of an innovation team sufficient to shift the status quo? Today, I explore 7 easy ways for airports to innovate.

Critical Success Factors

Everyone wants to innovate, although this was not always the case. Prior to the 1950’s, tradition was valued more highly than novelty (see diagram below). During this time, commercial success was founded on the notion of creating, and maintaining, a single competitive advantage.

innovation airports

The collective effects of the digital revolution, globalization and erosion of barriers to entry have made it harder for any organization to stay in the lead for too long. Without an innovation pipeline [1], or the active commitment to ongoing research, development and generation of new ideas, one can expect to be overtaken in the race for market share and profitability.

What is Innovation?

Innovation is a process by which new ideas are converted into economic value. In general terms, innovation falls into two broad categories: evolutionary and revolutionary. Evolutionary innovations make an existing product or service cheaper, faster, more exciting, more profitable or more valuable.

There are many examples in Aviation: the emergence of eco-friendly and locally-sourced eating options replacing fast food eateries at airports; more comfortable seats in business class; the introduction of premium economy class; improved passenger apps; online and mobile check-in. All of these advances stem from ideas that have made the passenger experience better than it was before.

Revolutionary innovations, on the other hand, totally change the game. The creation of the jet engine; introduction of low cost carriers; the Dave Carroll phenomenon; and the proliferation of mobile technology have each radically changed the nature, and sources of revenue, in the aviation industry.

Although innovation is an emerging trend in aviation, as a practice, it is far more established in fields such as Design or Technology. In these areas, the processes by which new ideas are converted to commercial value are well established, rendering them far less dependent on individuals and thus more able to deliver consistent results.

In the last three years, I have been involved in a research project at an independent research organization in Australia called National ICT Australia Ltd (NICTA). Our team was tasked with distilling the factors that contribute to innovation, organizational growth and success.

We learned that in most teams, the delivery of novel solutions had very little to do with the skills of the individual players or the formation of a unit dedicated to this task. Consistently, the projects that resulted in successful outcomes shared seven key characteristics. Becoming aware of these, and including them in your innovation strategy will help your innovation team shine. Here they are:

# 1: Not Every Idea is a Great One

Although most organizational leaders outwardly support the notion of innovation, many are not able to reconcile that the pursuit of new ideas is directly associated with risk. True innovation can only happen if there is an honest and open acceptance of failure: not every idea generated will be a good one.

Although most organizational leaders outwardly support the notion of innovation, many are not able to reconcile that the pursuit of new ideas is directly associated with risk. True innovation can only happen if there is an honest and open acceptance of failure: not every idea generated will be a good one.

Although this is easy to understand from a logical perspective, it is much harder to operationalize.

Traditionally in Aviation, the position of first (second or, ideally third) follower has been considered more desirable than that of being the originator of a new concept. It is far safer to let someone else try it out first, and copy their practices only if they succeed. At face value, this reduces the chances of project failure, however, it also creates an obstacle to real innovation.

# 2: Be Proactive

When explored more deeply, many innovative solutions in Aviation stemmed from a reactive need to respond to dire market conditions, rather than a pro-active search for new opportunities.

The following extract from a 2013 interview with Kansai International Airport’s Executive Officer illustrates the passive and conservative approach that prevails in the industry:

“There were risks involved in the project [creation of the first LLC terminal at KIX]… but taking the environment surrounding the airport at that time into account, missing the opportunity presented an even bigger risk”.

The passive approach to innovation places limitations on what can be achieved by your innovation team.

# 3: Acknowledge Invisible Barriers

The barriers to innovation are often invisible. They have taken years to become woven into the fabric of organisations, often making them impossible to identify from an internal perspective. As a simple example, consider the general profile of individuals who hold positions of strategic or budgetary influence in Aviation. For the most part, these positions are filled by people who are approaching the tail end of a successful career – i.e., the optimally worst time in their personal journey to be taking a chance on a project with unpredictable outcomes.

“As a society, we in the West have become very uncomfortable with uncertainty, with unexpected outcomes. The result is that a lot of what we strive for in the innovation space, is predictability above all else. The worrying consequence is that we’re lowering our expectations of what we can achieve. Far from this being an era of unprecedented innovation, I see it more as one of great human meekness and risk aversion, in which we elevate technologies that allow us to hide from the world, that are predictable and safe and help us evade our responsibility to explore, experiment and shape history.” Norman Lewis, PwC

Norman Lewis minces no words in his assessment of the hidden influences affecting the ability of organisations to create impact and lasting change.

# 4: Reward Failure

Implicit in Lewis’s message is the influence of the underlying cultural and reward structures that exist in an organization. Regardless of whether the Innovation Team is added to your organization chart or not, true innovation cannot happen unless the workplace environment makes it safe for staff to challenge existing orthodoxies. This necessitates that workplace culture and incentive systems reward exploration, creativity and the generation of new ideas – not only the successful delivery of a project. In the technology industry, companies like Google and Alibaba take a “fail fast, fail often” approach to innovation: they fund a large number of projects recognizing that although many won’t make the cut after a number of years, the process of accepting “failure” nurtures creativity and makes it safe to expand the limits of certainty.

# 5: Budget for Real Change

"In addition to internal challenges associated with perceptions of risk… the reluctance to innovate is also related to budgetary constraints. Nevertheless the smart airlines such Ryanair and JetBlue, for example, believe that without innovation their business models will stagnate" Steve Tarbuck, VP Ground Operations & Airport Services at Brussels Airlines.

As a consequence of the cultural discomfort with risk, many innovation programs struggle to find the right budgetary support.

"Our team was able to reduce operating costs by around 10% per annum… but we struggled to get a fraction of those savings diverted towards experimental, blue sky projects that explored productizing our success in operations and potentially creating a new revenue stream for the airport" Aviation Executive interviewed in the Middle East in 2014

In contrast, companies like the Hyatt Hotel Corporation have dedicated innovation budgets reserved exclusively for speculative projects that may, or may not, result in direct commercial success. The impacts extend far beyond the boundaries of the innovation team and have

"created an inclusive, collaborative and safe environment within Hyatt for employees to express new concepts and ideas" Jonathan Frolich, VP Global Innovation at Hyatt Hotels, speaking at a conference in 2013.

# 6: Design as a Catalyst for Change

In the last 100 years, the complexity of problems that exist in the world has grown exponentially (see graph). Not only do we now have more problems to solve, but the types of problems are more complicated. For example, in the 1890’s, system design focussed on Resilience (less complex) while in the 1990’s the focus shifted to Quality and Interoperability (more complex) [2].  

airport innovations

Cumulative number of journal articles in which an “ility” appears in the title or abstract of the paper (Source: Chris McMahon, Design as a Catalyst for Change, 2013)

As exemplified by the “ilities” in the graph above, issues such as Interoperability, Sustainability and Adaptability are too hard to solve by any one person. Solutions require the integration of knowledge and skills from various disciplines.

Creating a truly seamless global passenger experience, for example, would, at a minimum, require a collaborative effort between international experts in technology, data modeling, mathematics, psychology, marketing, operations - and design.

The inclusion of individuals with “design” training on broader innovation projects is not yet common practice. For most people, the qualification of “designer” brings to mind someone experienced in the nuances of cushion selection or colour co-ordination.

In reality, Designers are adeptly skilled at embracing uncertainty and transcend the chasm between the “doers” (left-brain engineering and technology types) and “dreamers” (right-brain creative types). They are trained to listen, empathise and understand, think laterally, communicate effectively and work with others to create solutions to problems. Exactly the type of person that is needed to create cohesion and deliver results in a team tasked with creating something extraordinary.

# 7: Learn from Other Fields

The creative process unlocked through designers  provides the perfect platform on which trends and capabilities from seemingly unrelated fields can be re-purposed. Harnessing works from other areas not only fast tracks the development of new solutions, it also removes the risk of being the first mover, albeit in a different industry.

It is useful to map out where the Aviation industry sits in the technology universe, and reach out to adjacent fields to seed ideas for solutions to problems.

Google is making driverless cars: how could this technology be leveraged to improve the passenger experience of the future? Imagine stepping into your driverless pod in suburban Sydney, and waking up 12 hours later at your meeting on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

The components to create this seamless global passenger experience already exist in other fields, they are just waiting for the right conditions in order to be assembled.

The changes in the Aviation industry over the last 50 years have quietly shifted the focus of the business from operational excellence to customer intimacy. These changes affect the dynamics of where resources should be allocated, how plans, goals and KPIs are derived, what systems and technologies are most appropriate and the way in which partner networks can be leveraged to create new revenue streams and opportunities.

These seven tips will help you on your way to encourage innovation. Although the steps are easy to follow, it may at times still be challenging to overcome the internal inertia that builds up over the lifespan of any large organisation. In these few cases, it may be wise to engage the help of an external innovation partner to bring an objective perspective to the process.

References & Suggested Reading [1] McGrath, R. G. (2013). Transient advantage. Harvard business review, 91(6), 62-70. [2] De Weck, O. L., Roos, D., & Magee, C. L. (2011). Engineering systems: Meeting human needs in a complex technological world. MIT Press. [3] Gibson, R. (2015). The Four Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking. John Wiley & Sons. [4] Kane, G. et al. (2015), Strategy, not Technology, Drives Digital Transformation. MIT Sloan Management Review. Report available here. [5] Andersen, B., & Wong, D. (2013). The new normal: Competitive advantage in the digital economy. London: Big Innovation Centre. Retrieved on May, 21, 2014.

Images by Anna Harrison, unless indicated

Related Articles & Links: How Indra Nooyi Turned Design Thinking Into Strategy: An Interview with PepsiCo's CEO Google’s Ngram viewer


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How Heathrow Promotes Innovative Technology

This is the 3rd part of a new series by Heathrow Airport’s innovation team. Part 1 was How Heathrow Innovates and part 2 How Heathrow Launched an Easter App. It’s a good idea to read both to best understand how we work when it comes to technology innovation. Today, we’ll look at a process we internally call showcase which we used to launch a new digital game. This method is also used to collect ideas that may not arise from a challenge-gathering team session.  

What is a Showcase?

In our team, we avoid what we call ‘tech push’. This is when you find a new technology and try and sidestep it into the business. Instead, we use technology as a solution to a business challenge and then think about the right technology. Sometimes when the area is completely new, we introduce it to colleagues using a showcase.

Not only does this provide a great way of showing innovative technology to colleagues, but it also provides a great opportunity for us to network within the business and to speak with suppliers about their technology and learn more about a particular area.

Devices Showcase

The devices presented were ones that were being trialed: touch screens, laptops, tablets, ruggedized devices

Showcase Format

The Innovation Team likes to do a few showcase presentations per year. The most recent was around new technology for kiosks, large format ‘glasses-less’ 3D screens and wearable technology. Today, I’ll focus on the most recent one we had which was on wearables.


Glassesless 3D screens that were to go into trial to aid security compliance

The event is held in Heathrow’s head office, the Compass Centre. It’s an ideal spot as many employees are either based there, or are likely to visit the Centre as it is the operation training suite. Because of this, we get a large number of visitors. For example, the ‘wearables’ event had over 2000 staff members attend over a 3 day period.

Right now, wearable technology is a trend that is gaining traction with consumers, as well as enterprise. Some well-known trials have occurred in the aviation industry using wearables – with the most well-known being the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Google Glass trial at Heathrow Terminal 3.

The wearables showcase was a hands-on style event. We did this by approaching our suppliers of wearable devices, and we spoke to new suppliers at trade events and through LinkedIn asking them to loan us equipment for the event.

As a result, we had around 10 different products, from 2 distinct categories of wearable: wrist worn and head worn. Then, we arranged to have the equipment on display and ensured that the stand was attended to throughout the day with people who could talk it through and engage with Heathrow staff.

When doing an internal event like this, the aim is to get feedback from staff on how they might use that technology. With this approach, we can draw out any potential business challenges that the technology might solve. In addition, we see how staff see themselves use the technology as presented.

To incentivise staff to take time out to come and see what is on show, we offer a competition prize - usually with the same question: ‘how would this technology change how you work at Heathrow?’

For the wearables event, we had in excess of 100 ideas come in, the winner of which (as judged by the Innovation Steering Group (see blog post 1)) won a Samsung Galaxy Gear S smart watch. This was one of the products on display.


Wearables (virtual reality, wrist worn, head worn)

Winning Wearable Idea

The winning idea came from a member of the Winter Resilience Team, who are part of Airside Operations. Their business challenge was around situational awareness on the airfield - where stand clearance teams are during snow events, and efficiently we can manage them during times of snow. The current system involves using the radio system, the trial would be looking at using smart watches as a hands free notification system to send updates and actions to teams out on the airfield. The watch also lets the Winter Resilience team report back on the status of their current activity.

This innovation was recently trialled during a summer snow practice drill day on the airfield and with great success. As a result, we will be pursuing this concept further within the wider Heathrow IT team.  

How to Make the Event a Success

To run a successful event, do the following:

  • Relevancy - A technology area might be new and exciting, but completely irrelevant to your business. We chose wearables because of several trials we had seen already in wearables, and we were noticing a push for more enterprise mobility using wearables in the wider sense.
  • Have it in the Right Place – you need to position yourself in an area with high footfall to drive engagement. So, use a space in your office where people congregate. The space we used had a coffee outlet, casual meeting space and lift cores in a wide open space. This meant plenty of people were waiting around for meetings.
  • Advertise in Advance– Tell people about it in your company’s newsletter or email run and advertise what people will see and get out of it. The event was advertised on our Intranet and through the departmental email system.
  • Run a Contest – It doesn’t have to be much, but if you want to get people to write down ideas, they will want to feel rewarded in some way and incentivised to give up a little bit of their time and thoughts.
  • Make it Popular with Key StakeholdersSpread invites throughout the day for key people you want to attend, perhaps people you have had conversations about the technology before.
  • Ensure Your Stand Constantly has a Team Member in Attendance– Empty stands don’t generate ideas, and having engaging team members there can help you get insights into a particular business area.
  • Gather Challenges – We’ve tried both paper submissions and online survey tools. Some people prefer to write their ideas out, while others want to think about it more and enter these from their desks online.
  • Interactive – Let people be hands on with the technology, and show them examples of its benefits. A lot of work has to go into creating demo content so people can have a good idea of how the technology might work. Suppliers helped to make this really useful.  
  • Right Time and Length – Consider the best opportunity to run the showcase. Be careful not to choose days that are stressful for different departments (e.g. end of month) or school holidays when your audience might be more limited. Consider the number of days you run it for – 2 or 3 days is ideal.
  • Follow Up – make sure you go back to people who you speak with and those who contribute ideas. We triaged some of the best ideas that were most relevant to the business and spoke to those people individually. The remainder we emailed to personally thank them for their contribution

Summing things up, these types of events are a great way to introduce colleagues to new technology and to engage with many members of staff in a relatively short time.

Also, they are superb opportunities to introduce one’s self and break into teams that one had previously struggled to engage with.

As you can see, planning and follow up are the most time consuming parts of the event. But if you plan it well, it provides great insights into the business, so it is well worth it!

Images: by Robin Gissing.

This is How Heathrow Airport Innovates

Editor’s note: We are excited to bring you a new series featuring insights from Heathrow Airport exclusively on New Airport Insider. Today’s post introduces Heathrow's internal process and upcoming ones will cover projects delivered by the innovation team. In this new series by Heathrow Airport’s IT Innovation team, we will share with you how we operate and provide context as to why Heathrow Airport Holdings (HAL) formed an Airport IT Innovation team. Also, introduce our mission, goals and detail processes and practices. The posts will be written by different members of the Innovation department and we will go into detail about some of the initiatives we have been working on.


Heathrow needs no introduction. It handles 73 million passengers per year and runs at 99% capacity across 2 runways. Our groups’ mission is to “make every journey better” to become a world class airport. To achieve this, we continually leverage new and innovative approaches to ensure our operation delivers exceptionally high levels of passenger experiences.

How It Started

Since we already delivered large-scale engineering projects, from building award-winning terminals to re-laying the runways, our planning and programme governance practices were already geared around delivery of large scale projects. And in 2012, our Chief Information Officer (CIO) Neil Clark made the decision to develop an innovation capability that would work closely with the business to understand and deliver solutions more effectively.

Starting with a small group of 3, the first challenge was to build support across the entire organisation. This was done through delivering smaller scale wins to build momentum and immediately demonstrate the team’s benefits.

Initially, the goals were to:

  • Drive effective business case development through trialling and testing initiatives to provide the evidence to prove the business benefit.
  • Engage with colleagues and partners and provide an environment to enable them to innovate
  • Bring “lean” and “art of the possible” thinking to all business challenges
  • Be able to identify, embrace and provide potential solutions based on new and emerging technologies

In the first months, we gave careful consideration as to how to create the “right” type of culture that allows innovation to succeed. As you would expect, Heathrow is geared towards managing risk and driving operational efficiencies. This is done with a successful Continuous Improvement programme, however it was clear more needed to be done to enable an innovation ethos.

The key to the team’s early success was creating an environment where the right levels of support were given, and in developing a culture where it was acceptable to try, and in some cases fail (as long as it was done quickly and with the learnings shared in a comfortable environment). So support from the senior team was garnered through forming an Innovation Steering Group (ISG), chaired by the CIO but also alongside exec members from Commercial, Operations and Communications teams.

The innovation team specifically focused on meeting business challenges and not simply adding shiny new pieces of technology. This was crucial for two reasons:

  1. We didn't want to simply push new technologies for the sake of it.
  2. By targeting business challenges, we ensured that if we successfully found innovative solutions, there was a greater chance that there would be support from the business for the operational development costs.

The Process

The process is formed around a classic funnel where challenges and ideas are collected on the left. Then by using a series of lightweight tools (shown at the bottom), the team is able to rapidly triage this large group in order to leave a subset that are then moved through the phases.

Heathrow Airport Innovation Process

Challenges are collected in a variety of ways, from entries to either our global innovation competition, or smaller challenges with people emailing us or suggesting ideas to us in our roles. By far the most successful way of collecting ideas has been through challenge-gathering sessions held by the team. These are 90 minute facilitated sessions, where we ask representatives from business units across Heathrow to tell us about their challenges. We ask questions like, “What keeps you awake at night?”, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you ask yourself ‘if I could only change that, this would be so much easier?” or “what missing piece of data would transform the ability to do your role?”.


Once challenges are collected, metrics are used to score and prioritise. To make scoring less biased, we ask colleagues from around the department and the wider business units to join in this process. Then we use a short Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13), which helps in emphasising positive outcomes, to score each challenge.

Shape and Amplify

If a challenge scores above a certain threshold, we assign a resource from the team to begin to “Shape and Amplify” by using some lightweight tools, for example a vision card. A vision card is a one-page document that collates information about the challenge (detailed description, success criteria, sponsor, champion, business benefit, etc.). This enables the Innovation Steering Group (ISG) to make an informed decision on whether to move the challenge forward to an innovation trial of some sort.


The “Proving” stage may take the form of a Proof of Concept (POC) trial, or a piece of detailed research. So the team takes whatever steps are necessary to deliver the insight required to proceed with a business case to full project funding.


This can mean developing an app, manufacturing a new device, borrowing technology or changing an existing process.  Whatever the trial or POC requires, the aim is to demonstrate a clear understanding of the measured benefits we'll achieve and the challenges we will face in implementing the technology.

Final Thought

In delivering Innovation in Heathrow, one key lesson learned has been the importance of providing a variety of approaches to engage with colleagues and partners. We try to make sure that everybody knows where and how they can come to us to talk about innovation. And we run technology showcases, deliver lectures, write papers, attend workshops.

Also, by starting with the goal of solving a real business challenge and creating new value through a product or service, we can instigate and engage in brilliant conversations.

Hopefully, you enjoyed this post. In upcoming posts, we will introduce to you some initiatives and the challenges delivered in the last few years.

Airport Survey

In collaboration with ADB Airfield Solutions, we are conducting a short online survey to identify top issues that concern airports and key priorities for 2015. The survey results will be published on both websites in May 2015 and all data collected will remain confidential. Will you take the survey?