COVID-19 Recovery: How airports can restart operations in a cost-efficient way using optimization

Guest Author by Guest Author | Jun 11, 2020

Written by Bart Seuntjens, General Manager, Brussels Airport Consulting and Niels Tailleur, Head of Consulting and Products, ORTEC Belgium

In a short period of time, the airport industry experienced an unprecedented decrease in the number of scheduled flight traffic. Traditional methods of operation have been heavily disrupted or completely halted.

There is no blueprint for the “new normal” but it will likely be shaped by the following factors:

  • Insecurity – The individual passenger needs to feel confident again to start flying. Passenger behaviour will change drastically.
  • Dependence – The airport community will need to recreate the ecosystem together, respecting incentives for each partner. National authorities will play a key role in stimulating the industry and impacting local decision making.
  • Responsibility – Airports’ main concern is the health of passengers and employees. To stop the spread of the virus, several new processes and (temporary) mitigationmeasureswill most likely become part of daily operations.

Maintaining operational efficiencyunder these new conditions will be a top priority. Smart optimization techniques such as forecasting, capacity simulation and optimal operational planning will become crucial to deal with and prepare for changes in operational processes.

Stages of operational recovery

When restarting operations, airports will go through different recovery stages, as shown on the S-curve below. Each stage requires different techniques to address operational implications.

Figure 1: Stages of operational recovery to add

Stage 1: Minimal operations – Applying optimization techniques in resource planning and operational management is key to restart operations. These techniques can take all new and upcoming restrictions into account. Capacity and resources will impact costs significantly, so they must be carefully allocated.

Stage 2: Growing operations – Agile and flexible forecasting will become indispensable to optimally match capacity needs with fluctuating demand. Most likely, this stage will last for an extended period of time, with only moderate growth.

Stage 3: Steady operations – Capacity simulation and forecasting models will remain crucial to keep operations as efficient as possible. This will also help to mitigate capacity shortages pro-actively in case a (temporary) capacity threshold is reached.

Data driven decision-making in 3 streams

Processes will be very volatile. A continuous cycle and exchange between process changes, forecast and simulation, and optimized operational planning will drive efficiency throughout the passenger, bag, and aircraft process.

Figure 2: Data driven decision making in 3 streams

 Let’s explore the valuable role optimization can play during these three main process flows (passenger, bag and aircraft).

Stream 1: Process changes

Airports need to keep optimizing end-to-end flows while adding processes as required.

Passenger, bag, and aircraft processes will need to change, sometimes drastically, to meet new requirements and adapt to new behaviours. Different questions are emerging. How will airports deal with this new situation? What is the impact on end-to-end flows? How can this be done with a minimum amount of resourcesand a maximum throughput? Process changes and passenger satisfaction will depend on new criteria. This means that airports need to rethink thedefinition of a successful process.

Passenger process flow: Uncertain passenger behaviour will have a big impact on process changes. There are also certainties to consider, such as social distancing requirements. This will not only impact the passenger experience it will also involve changes in processes. It might even be necessary to increase the workforce in order to reduce wait times during screening and check-in, and at border control points and gates.

Baggage process flow: The baggage process is rather complex and involves a lot of important stakeholders. Infrastructure and capacity availability might be limited in the first phase, which means certain flows need to be redesigned. Cabin baggage guidelines might also be reconsidered, which would have a big impact on the baggage process load.

Aircraft process flow: The turnaround process will be extended due to additional measures and delayed (de)boarding. Minimizing turnaround timeis crucial for airlines’ business models and for the performance of the airport as a hub. Optimized turnaround planning must go hand-in-hand with collaborative decision making(A-CDM).

An end-to-end process methodology and transversal approach is necessary to analyze the impact of process changes and define possible bottlenecks or opportunities in the system.

Stream 2: Forecast and simulation

Airports need to create and evaluate multiple scenarios and prepare for the most-likely outcome.

Changes in passenger behaviour, shifts in passenger types, and required airport measures will have an impact on capacity requirements. Scenario analysis with flexible input and easy parameter tuning will be crucial in this fast-changing reality. Studies using advanced analytics offer insights on the impact of changes and how they should be implemented in existing forecasting and simulation models. The more accurate the forecasts are, the easier it will be to react to dynamic capacity needs.

Passenger process flow: It’s not just the expected number of passengers per flight that will be different, passengers’ offering patterns at different process stages will also change. Moreover, shifts in airline routes towards point-to-point traffic can change the balance between local and transfer passengers. Forecasting on passenger type might become more important than forecasts on a flight level.

Baggage process flow: Changes in the number of passengers per flight will also impact the amount of baggage per flight. Mitigating measures might also impact cabin baggage allowances. Simulating and forecasting the expected number of bags will offer important insights to understand the load on the baggage handling system.

Aircraft process flow: What is the most optimal airside capacity? What is the desired stand occupation? When should we open an extra runway? Airside capacity has a great impact on airport operations and punctuality. Airside simulations can help in setting priorities and balancing extra capacity versus operational impact (e.g. flight delays).

Flexible forecasting models and predictive analytics with AI-based algorithms will help airports determine capacity requirements in this rapidly changing environment

Stream 3: Operational planning

Airports will encounter challenging puzzles in optimizing planning, with new constraints and requirements.

Operational planning will become more challenging. More constraints and parameters will have to be implemented and there will be continuous pressure on operational efficiency. At the same time, there will be an opportunity to provide outstanding service to passengers and to reorganize cooperation with airport community stakeholders for overall efficiency. Operational planning will need to be revised for each airport process when new changes are implemented in the forecast and flow.

Passenger process flow: Passenger process planning will become more challenging. For example, what is the impact on check-in desk planning if baggage drop-off points become more important? What if online check-in becomes the standard? What if cabin baggage also needs to be checked-in?

Baggage process flow: How reclaim baggage belts are allocated per flight will depend on the number of bags and passengers with bags on a flight. Only then can you ensure there is enough space for passengers to pick up their baggage.

Aircraft process flow: Stand and gate allocation will need to consider new rules, such as the preference of certain gates or the need to leave empty gates for spatial reasons. It might be necessary to have dedicated gates for certain origin countries.

We are facing a fast-changing reality and there are many factors that influence decisions. Maintaining operational efficiency under these new conditions will be a top priority when restarting operations. It is, however, a complex puzzle to solve. Smart optimization techniques such as forecasting, capacity simulation, and optimal operational planning will become crucial to anticipate and implement changes in operational processes.


Bart is the General Manager of Brussels Airport Consulting. With more than 25 years of experience in consulting, Bart has worked in the transportation industry for many years. Throughout his career he has participated in numerous airport transformation projects focused on operational excellence and change management. This experience includes the aviation sector and the dynamic culture of airports where the challenge remains to align commercial programs with compliance programs. Bart is a recognized and certified (ADKAR) expert in change management.

Niels is director of the consulting and software business of ORTEC Belgium and has over 10 years of experience in optimization projects in diverse industries. With his entrepreneurial mindset and expertise in the sector, he is an expert in creating win-win situations from operations optimization perspective for the complete ecosystem of partners in the aviation industry.

Share This