Time to embrace disruption


The end of a year is often time to reflect, and to look forward to what the future may hold.  As we prepared for  2020, I’m sure that none of  us anticipated what lay ahead. Sure, there were some  challenges on our radar – but a global pandemic was not one of them.

As we take stock of the past 12 months, I think it’s also true to say that 2020 has been one of the most disruptive years in our industry’s history. From the record lows of global air traffic to moving a majority of our interactions into the virtual domain… the disruption has taken many forms.

Disruption is not a new phenomenon. In fact, in today’s digital age, it has become the norm. Take for example how Uber transformed the taxi business and how WhatsApp unsettled the telecommunications industry. The trick is being prepared for it, which is why it pays to constantly scan the environment for potential threats.

So looking beyond the current crisis, what other external forces have the potential to disrupt the ATM industry? New airspace entrants could be one for sure, 5G and digitalisation too. But in my view, we shouldn’t see these potential disruptors as a threat – quite the opposite. Industries that have ridden out the storm of disruption are those that embrace change as an opportunity. Instead of burying their heads in the sand, they ask – what can we learn from these disruptors and how should we best respond? In my mind there are two core capabilities required to successfully navigate disruption – agility and innovation.

Turning first to agility, that’s not an aptitude often associated with our industry. In fact, a criticism sometimes levelled on ATM is the slow pace of change. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the need to swiftly adapt our business models to be a match for our external circumstances. Look how quickly we introduced new measures and developed new shift patterns to keep our staff safe. And how we quickly built capability to hold our critical meetings and events online. How do we harness this speed and agility and apply it to our day to day business? How can we speed up discussions on critical issues like adapting our airspace to accommodate new users? How can we collaborate together to swiftly tackle inefficiencies in our aviation system and improve our environmental impact? How can we move forward conversations about borderless operations, to deliver real benefits to our airline customers at their time of need? These are critical conversations that we need to pick up again, and issues that may require us to be more nimble.

The second key capability for surviving disruption is a willingness to embrace innovation. From satellite ADS-B to remote towers, innovation is alive in our industry today. We need to continue to harness innovation within our own industry, but we should also seek out ideas from beyond ATM. What innovations exist within adjacent industries that we can benefit from? What can we learn from other organisations within our supply chain?

And when it comes to innovation, partnership is key. Take remote towers for example: as HungaroControl and Searidge Technologies have shown this year, smart/digital towers are vital to our future infrastructure, helping to build resilience and enable flexibility. If the industry is to have the capacity to adapt to fluxing traffic patterns and different airspace user requirements safely and efficiently, it is going to need innovative partnerships to help deliver digitisation and automation, remote ANS, training and maintenance and UTM.

So innovation and agility are great capabilities to encourage within our industry to best prepare us for what the future holds. We should also make sure we continue to learn from our past experiences. COVID-19 has caused significant disruption to our industry, but I contend that there is almost always a flipside to a crisis. A fresh perspective that emerges that can herald positive change. So, as we emerge from this current crisis, one thing we should ask ourselves is how do we take our  learnings and build back better?