CANSO CEO Series: Back to the Future


Conor Mullan, Managing Director of Think Research, CANSO Executive Committee Associate Member Representative and CANSO CEO Series host, shares what to expect from a new special edition mini-series.

Earlier this year we hosted three webinars with ANSP CEOs where we had in-depth conversations about how they were coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.  At the time we – somewhat optimistically – thought we might be more or less at the mid-point of the crisis. Now that the pandemic and traffic reductions look set to last quite a bit longer than we thought, we took the chance to speak with five more ANSP CEOs about their experiences and plans for the future. 

The new CANSO CEO mini-series will feature conversations with the CEOs of ANSPs from Papua New Guinea, Azerbaijan, Poland, Hungary, and Australia, and will be released via CANSO’s YouTube channel and video library. These will provide unique insights into the current thinking of the industry’s key decision makers and innovators, and I would like to give you a teaser of what to expect.

When we talk about managing a crisis we naturally think “in the moment” – about how we get through today, tomorrow and next week. What many ANSPs have shown is that contrary to some people’s perception, they can be agile and flex their operations at short notice. ANSPs have been planning on shorter cycles than ever before and reacting to change faster than ever as the crisis unfolds.

What almost all the CEOs recognise is that the legacy management will be harder. Now that the future is becoming a little clearer and we get some idea of the next year or two, air traffic management needs a strategy to deal with lower traffic, lower revenues, and still a need to modernise.  Without doubt the ability to maintain services throughout the downturn has been a massive success but everyone recognises the challenge to figure out what happens next. 

Part of this comes from the ability to talk with more clarity on our experiences and what we know rather than what is still uncertain.  This was an interesting difference between the conversations we had in the first part of 2020 compared to this new series. Back in May and June when we talked to CEOs there was mostly uncertainty and very little ability to think beyond the next emergency planning cycle. Now, towards the end of 2020, the CEOs we spoke with had the confidence and certainty that came from getting through the last 8 months and the change in tone and confidence was noticeable. 

That doesn’t mean we can project that confidence fully forward to the future and all the CEOs admit that there are still a lot of uncertainties to manage.  Predicting the future traffic is incredibly complex.  Fleets have changed, airlines have gone, demands may have changed with online technologies, new entrants have accelerated and the legal, policy and regulatory frameworks under which we will operate are still uncertain.  As one of the CEO memorably puts it “the old playbook will no longer work”.

The general view of the future however is shared. It will be more focused on new entrants; on environmental sustainability; on resilience; and with virtualisation and digitalisation playing a more important role. Those who felt brave enough to quantify it acknowledge a reduction of around 70% in traffic and revenue, and a recovery period of at least 3 years. 

The question for us then is how to we deal with that? 

Perhaps the strongest message was that of cooperation. Every single CEO mentioned it (without prompting!). They suggest that cooperation is required at several levels. At a global level, ANSPs need to work together to share lessons learned and unite in an approach. At a network level, governments, airspace users and ANSP need to cooperate, not least to recognise the role ANSPs play when developing policy to cope with such crises. Within the supply chain and CANSO member base, both Full Members and Associate Members should recognise that the old transactional relationship is gone for now. Changing relationships between customer and supplier will be essential as we rebuild together. 

I know as an Associate Member representative that’s not as simple as asking a Full Member “when will you start investing again?”.  There is no simple answer to that. 

What we know is that many if not all ANSPs undertook cost cutting exercises to make themselves smaller organisations.  Short term that has impacted the supply chain but the smarter providers must recognise the opportunities that brings. New business models, new partnerships, new ways to offer products and services – these are all on the table now. 

Another common view comes when asking the CEOs about what they see as the risks. Again, almost all say the same thing; the risks are only realised if we don’t do anything about them. If we tackle them head on they are opportunities.  As Janusz Janiszewski of PANSA said, we could compare the COVID crisis to a time machine; we have a chance to use traffic levels from the past to accelerate the ATM system of the future.  That is perhaps the biggest opportunity of all and to waste it would maybe be the biggest mistake of all. 

As a closer for each conversation we asked the CEO to state three words which they felt described the ATM community. Interestingly the CEOs gave 14 different words with only the word “resilient” appearing more than once and the choice of the word “lucky” from Kornel Szepessy of Hungarocontrol was particularly reflective. 

2020 has been a year like no other, and in many ways the industry has been fortunate to have handled the crisis with such agility and flexibility. 2021 will doubtless bring us more challenges, with the aviation picture continuing to change by the week, but we can draw on other words chosen by our CEOs when they rightly state how critical, committed and essential our industry is. As we stand strong and ready to work together towards an industry recovery, we realise the important role CANSO members will play in the global recovery. I look forward to discussing this further with CANSO members, and continuing our dialogue in the coming months.

Watch Episode 1 with Ted Pakii – NiuSky Pacific Ltd. here

Please note this series was recorded in late summer/early autumn and the statements made were reflective of conditions at the time. If you would like to know more about the areas discussed or the latest developments, please get in touch or view the latest industry news and view.

About the Author

Conor Mullan

Managing Director of Think Research, CANSO Executive Committee Associate Member Representative and CANSO CEO Series host

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