“We need to bring the magic of flying back” – Interview with Armando Brunini, CEO of SEA Milan Airports

Yuliia Moravej by Yuliia Moravej | Jan 26, 2024

Join us for an insightful discussion with Mr. Armando Brunini, President of ACI EUROPE, Member of the ACI World Executive Committee, and CEO of SEA Milan Airports – Aeroporti di Milano Linate e Malpensa. Renowned in the aviation industry, Mr. Brunini shares his experience and insights on the current dynamics, challenges and trajectories of the airport sector.

Your career in the airport sector is impressive. First, the airport of Bologna and then, the airport of Naples which has doubled its growth under your leadership. Now, Milano Linate and Milano Malpensa airports. Malpensa is already the second Italian airport (after Fiumicino) in the total number of passengers and the first Italian airport for cargo in the world. What’s your secret, and what keeps you excited about this sector?

I’ve never believed in a magic formula, nor do I consider myself particularly special. What has fueled my enthusiasm for my job over the years is my authenticity and passion for the products and services we deliver as airports, playing a crucial role as facilitators of connectivity. The airports I manage are like my children.

I am a product person, and I am people-oriented. Working on the services we deliver, engaging with people, and building a good team with a positive climate and atmosphere doesn’t feel like an effort for me. I genuinely enjoy what I do.

How does it look and feel to operate airports now? What are your main priorities and challenges?

Aviation has always been seen as a progressive force of our society. It still carries that magical allure when you see an aircraft take off. It’s a testament to human achievement.

Our main challenge in aviation is to continue being a progressive force, but in a sustainable way.

Like many industries, we emit CO2.  Without any doubt, our main challenge in aviation right now is to continue being this progressive force but in a sustainable way. Our purpose, which is connectivity, especially long-distance connectivity, remains unchanged, but we must address it in a more sustainable manner.

ACI and ACI EUROPE recognized and started addressing this challenge early on in 2009 through the Airport Carbon Accreditation program, acknowledged internationally by institutions.

While we began addressing our carbon footprint a long time ago, the climate change challenge has evolved into a priority concern, becoming increasingly prominent over the last five to six years. Without a doubt, we have to face it — and face it with pride. Recognizing the achievements of this industry thus far and expressing the commitment to continue in that sustainable direction is our primary focus.

Moving on to other challenges, improving the passenger experience is another crucial aspect.  We’ve all done a good job in this regard. I’m confident that if we look at average ASQ (Airport Service Quality) numbers, we will see improvements over the last decades. However, in recent years, service has encountered significant pressure, especially in Europe. Various factors contribute to this challenge, including continually increasing levels of compliance and checks, leading to more checkpoints. Security, naturally, is becoming more relevant as geopolitical tensions around the world are on the rise.

Congestion, particularly in air traffic (ATC congestion) is another significant challenge, particularly prevalent in Europe these days. Simultaneously, a shortage of skilled workers in the labor market poses issues for both our industry’s broader ecosystem and our own organizations. Recruiting people to join our teams has become much more difficult than just a few years ago, before COVID-19. Geopolitical tensions are on the rise. I believe all these factors collectively are affecting the quality of service. On top of it, physical phenomena are becoming more frequent, possibly due to climate change, such as an increase in disruptive aviation events like storms.

I used to fly since I was a small kid. It was magical. The entire journey, from driving to the airport, navigating through the airport, to the flight, was magic. However, today people often approach flight planning with more tension than before. Aviation as a whole must go above and beyond in passenger services. We all need to do our part in addressing these challenges. We have to work to bring the magic back.

We have to work to bring the magic back.

Circling back to the net-zero and sustainability agenda: how do you navigate implementing a sustainability plan while keeping operations smooth?

We are very active and well aware that there’s a long road ahead. Having been part of the Airport Carbon Accreditation program since its inception in 2009, we are now at Level 4+. I don’t believe we are doing anything drastically different from many other airports, but there are many ambitious projects we’re involved in.

A key focus for us is working extensively on reducing Scope 3 emissions and being a facilitator for other emission “contributors” in aviation, like airlines, aircraft, and airport accessibility.

So, we have several noteworthy and relevant projects. One initiative currently underway is our effort to encourage the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs). While our budget for this is modest, it holds significance for us. With the upcoming ‘Fit for 55’ package, a specific European legislation, airlines will soon have to adopt SAFs in increasing percentages from 2025. We are proactively encouraging airlines to use SAFs at our airports before it becomes compulsory.

To encourage airlines, we allocated a small budget to help bridge the green premium gap—the price difference between SAF and conventional aviation fuel. We might not be the only ones doing this, but there might not be many putting in the same effort.

We’re also into some slightly futuristic projects, still linked to Scope 3 emissions and involving airlines and aircraft. We are engaged in various projects focused on hydrogen and becoming hydrogen-ready.

Airbus is investing a lot in producing a hydrogen-fueled airplane by 2035, and to support this project, we need hydrogen production and logistics to ramp up in the coming years. To meet the 2035 deadline, we’re actively working on these projects, some of which are funded by the EU, and we’ve joined consortiums to achieve our goals.

We will be establishing the first plant for producing hydrogen in Malpensa. While it’s small, initially intended just for ground vehicles, it still serves as the first building block for the ecosystem. Also, we are part of a consortium working on a project to blueprint to create a “Hydrogen Valley” around Malpensa—an ecosystem for the production, logistics, and uptake of hydrogen. Even though it seems far into the future, we’re gaining traction now to be ready when needed.

Another project involves urban air mobility. We are thinking of a joint venture with one of our shareholders and Skyports, the world-leading company in vertiport production and operation. We have done extensive preliminary studies to support urban air mobility, initially focusing on first use cases such as flight taxis between cities or other parts of the region to Malpensa or Linate. If these applications are sustainable, they could be the future of noise, traffic, and emissions-free transport.

Another innovative sustainability project we discuss in Brussels involves ramp electrification, funded by the EU. This support aims to electrify ground power units (GPUs) for aircraft and set up connected global recharging stations for our vehicles on the ramp. We are actively engaged in this initiative.  

Milano Malpensa Airport (left)
Milano Linate Airport (right)

These projects are truly ambitious and require extensive cooperation.

You have chosen the right word – collaboration. As both an airport operator and an airport, we are very used to collaboration because we’re just one piece of a larger ecosystem. Particularly with the significant challenges tied to sustainability and innovation, collaboration and cross-industry cooperation become paramount. We are already joining forces with airports, operators, aircraft manufacturers, energy companies, and more. We need to collaborate; we cannot achieve it on our own. This is where ACI, the industry association, brings tremendous value.

Milano Linate and Milano Malpensa airports have already implemented the new generation smart security systems. How would you comment on the results of its implementation – for airport operations and customers?

If I have to spot one initiative and to rank the initiatives over the last 2-3 years in terms of their impact, I will rank this one first.

It started as a pilot in 2018 and was fully implemented in Linate in 2022, followed by Malpensa in 2023. Linate proudly stands as one of the first airports in Europe to drive towards 100% smart security.

Within our team and the industry, we often discuss improving the passenger experience. Smart security is one of the most tangible examples that truly impacts passenger satisfaction. We’ve seen our ASQ feedback on security really leap after the implementation of smart security.

Passengers love the convenience of not having to remove liquids and computers from their bags. As a company, we value it for making our operations more efficient. Waiting times in Linate have halved since the introduction of smart security and reduced by one-third in Malpensa. Productivity has improved, requiring fewer staff to manage the same number of passengers. It’s a win-win-win scenario: better service quality, reduced waiting times, and increased cost-efficiency for us. The investment pays back. Overall, it’s one of the projects that we’re genuinely pleased to have undertaken.

Could you walk us through a typical day for someone overseeing major Italian airports?

Typically, I start my day at Linate, given its historical significance. I spend around one day a week at Malpensa Airport, a larger facility, and toss in an average of one day for travel.

Let’s dive into one of my Linate days. I’m an early riser, by Latin standards (smile).  I usually reply to my first emails of the day from home. Then, I commute to the airport. Lately, it’s been the metro more often than my car, thanks to the fantastic 15-minute metro connection from downtown Milan.

During my metro ride, I usually go through press reports my team compiles each morning, so when I arrive, I already know what’s in the press and what is happening.

Throughout the day, I usually have three to four meetings on average. I try to keep them within an hour. Two-thirds are internal, focused on projects, troubleshooting, and expediting tasks. The rest would be external, with partners, airlines, suppliers, etc. I like to squeeze in some buffer time between meetings to gather my thoughts, and focus.

Always, I make it to the terminal at least once daily. I often take a lunchtime walk, preferring it over a desk sandwich. I go to the terminal, get a feel for what’s happening, and just enjoy the atmosphere. Sometimes I join my colleagues for lunch if there is a free spot.

Every day, whether it’s morning, lunch, or evening, I carve out time for sports. I’m protective of this time, and it’s a consistent entry in my agenda. Fortunately, we have a sports facility right at the airport. Exercise is a daily ritual for me.

I feel fortunate and lucky to have this job I love and do what I do.

Yuliia Moravej

Yuliia Moravej

Communications Manager at ACI World
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