A common challenge expressed by airport leaders surveyed for this Publication is the many obstacles they face when attempting to pursue innovation. Despite the enthusiasm—and in some cases a formalized process—to pursue innovation, airport operators must navigate difficult and confusing obstacles on the path to implementing new technology. While these hurdles can differ between individual airports and projects, several areas were found to be common throughout the research. Notable obstacles to pursuing innovation include the following:
- Skill Sets
- Current Environment
Airport operators, government representatives, and legal teams will need to work together to design new ways in which airports operators can incorporate innovation into their organizations. Along with a collaborative approach, airport operators must be aware of their specific hurdles when designing their strategy to research and pursue new technologies.
For the most part, airports in the United States are public organizations. As public entities, airport operators must adhere to stringent procurement processes to comply with legal regulations. These processes can be complex and require agreement between multiple stakeholders before a technology project can be given approval. Time can often be the biggest cost of this process, as procurement efforts often require long lead times for solicitation, award, and contracting. The time between the development of a technology requirement and the point at which a contract is signed can result in the purchase of an outdated solution. This is particularly challenging when procuring technology systems as part of a large construction project. Because innovation can often require quick action to effectively address an emerging need, a lengthy procurement process can result in a missed opportunity.
A specific cultural environment and organizational mindset is required to truly embrace innovation within an organization. Due to the general risk aversion of public organizations, such as airports, the need for stability and public accountability can override the pursuit of new ideas. The pursuit of innovation comes with a risk of failure, a need to invest in resources, and a dependence on open-mindedness. Airport operators working to develop a culture of innovation will need to justify their ideas and work hard to address concerns of stakeholders with differing perspectives.
A culture of innovation can be cultivated over time through the due diligence of first developing sound business cases that appropriately identify hurdles and seek to fully assess the risks and impacts, and then working closely to nurture a collaborative relationship with affected stakeholders. Over time, trust will be gained among stakeholders, risk tolerance will increase, and eventually champions for innovation will begin to emerge throughout the organization.
Accounting for innovation within a budget, although increasing in relevance, is still uncommon in planning efforts. Traditional budgets allow airport operators to pursue projects focused on organizational objectives and operational needs. A budget that includes an allowance for innovation enables an airport operator to devote resources to tracking, researching, and testing new technologies with potential impacts on the airport efficiency and passenger experience. The return on investment (ROI) of an innovation program can be difficult to determine due to the intangible nature of benefits such as customer satisfaction. However, when an innovation program is aligned with the organization’s strategic objectives, its success and financial value can be evaluated against key performance indicators that enable the measurement of quantitative and qualitative factors.
Innovative technology is typically adopted for commercial use by private industry before a use case is established in public organizations, such as airports. As such, new technologies often bring a learning curve that airport operators do not have sufficient technical skills to support. Implementation of new technologies without the requisite skills to leverage them can result in overlooked or underutilized functionalities. Developing a successful innovation program may require a significant budget allocation for hiring new staff with experience in implementing and operating the latest technologies.
Although increasing in popularity, formal airport innovation programs are still relatively uncommon in the industry. Only a small number of airport operators have integrated the pursuit of innovation into top-level objectives and successfully justified the program from a strategic approach. Airport operators that consider innovation on a case-by-case basis run the risk of investing resources into siloed technology projects that are unable to leverage synergies and maximize the ROI. As innovation programs within an airport begin to formalize, it is critical that airport operators use the established strategic objectives as the framework within which to define the innovation program objectives. Aligning with the airport’s strategic objectives will result in a cohesive set of initiatives that will ultimately transform the innovation program into an airport-wide culture of innovation.
Infrastructure architecture and age can add to the constraints that impact innovation projects. Technology advancement can be very difficult to predict, which can greatly impact projects planned for airport infrastructure design with the current technology in mind. Issues with power, structural requirements, building materials, and design can impose constraints on a project or require expensive retrofits. Airport operators must be fully aware of the limitations they encounter in their current environment before pursuing innovation.