Expansion programme director Phil Wilbraham explains how the UK’s biggest airport intends to double passengers while creating a more personal service
You don’t embark lightly on a £14bn construction project on a constrained site next to one of the world’s busiest airports. But Heathrow has no choice if it is to remain a hub of choice in an increasingly crowded market — it has been operating at close to full capacity for a decade. With a long-awaited third runway just given parliamentary approval, Heathrow will be able to boost annual passenger numbers from 78 million to 130 million and add 40 new long-haul routes, says Phil Wilbraham, expansion programme director. “It’s so we can continue to connect Britain to where the growth is in the world. If we don’t take this opportunity, it will be very difficult for a two-runway airport to grow beyond 85-90 million passengers.”
That growth is also dependent on Heathrow continuing to meet passengers’ growing expectations, and Wilbraham is well aware of the competition it faces from hubs elsewhere in Europe and in the Middle East. “I think it’s about providing a more individualized service. In the past we have tended to think of passengers as they are on the plane: first class, premium, economy. It’s not as simple as that. We need to give people more choice so that they can create their own journey rather than having to fit into the mould of the airport.”
Technology will liberate travellers from queues — “it has the potential to take us to a place where you don’t even feel that you’re being processed, you’re just walking through a building to get to where you want to be” — and empower them to roam more freely through the airport. “I don’t think it will be that long before people will start to find their way using their phone or tablet. So in 20 years’ time, you won’t need many physical signs because most people will know their route.” As conventional shopping goes online and retail takes up less space, travellers will be able to pick and mix from a much wider range of activities: “There could easily be a place where you watch a movie or TV or go and relax or get some kip between flights — maybe have a sauna.”
“It’s about providing a more individualized service. In the past we have tended to think of passengers as they are on the plane: first class, premium, economy. It’s not as simple as that”
Wilbraham expects that fewer travellers will arrive by road, with improved public transport options and new high-speed rail links. Driverless cars will ease capacity issues by reducing the space required for car parking and forecourts. Electric vehicles will need somewhere to charge — but their batteries could be used as storage for renewable energy, to even out supply and demand. Ultimately, the target is to make the airport’s expansion zero-carbon.
Like many global cities, London has an uneasy relationship with the airports that have underpinned its success, and especially its major hub. It took almost 20 years to plan and build Heathrow Terminal 5, and it is already nearly that long since the third runway was first mooted. So Heathrow intends to “grow sensitively”, says Wilbraham. Quieter engines will help — airlines are incentivized to bring their newest planes and stick to the least disruptive flight paths. “We also want to ensure that the local community is properly attached to the airport, to merge the transport gateway and the city as much as possible, and at the same time create a great place to live and a great place to actually work. It’s really important that those things merge more than they have done in the past.”
Heathrow’s workforce of 70,000 will grow too, but probably only by about 20%, and the skills profile will change with the advent of automation. Autonomous tugs already work on the airfield and it has hosted a trial of a “CargoPod” that could move goods around the airside perimeter. “People are going to want a personal service as much as they are going to want the benefits of automation, so there will always be someone around who can help. It will be no bad thing when people don’t come to work to move bags by hand, but to use a machine that moves bags. But it will need to be very sensitively worked through to ensure that the passenger gets the right service and that we get the right sort of efficiencies.”
Hamad: young, deluxe and disruptive
It only opened in 2014, but it’s already challenging established hubs
Ten years ago, just over 5 million people a year passed through Qatar’s Doha International Airport; today, its successor, Hamad International, serves 30 million, with a planned rise to over 50 million for the 2022 World Cup. In 2018, it was ranked as the best in the Middle East, and the fifth best in the world. CNN called it “the most luxurious airport on the planet”.
HIA is well located to capitalize not only on the growth in global air traffic, but on its eastwards shift. Its expansion plans are ambitious — a second cargo terminal will double capacity to
2.8 million tonnes, and 100ha are set aside for an airport city. But it’s in the field of technology that chief operating officer Badr Mohammed Al Meer sees the real competitive advantage. The future of HIA will be more automated, he says, as artificial intelligence frees staff to focus on more complex issues. The airport’s app already acts as shopping directory, e-commerce platform and routefinder, but Al Meer foresees augmented and virtual reality playing a greater role, for passengers and staff. “It can enhance wayfinding through camera navigation and create new ways to visualize and interact with the airport’s operational data, including aircraft movement, passenger movement and retail analytics.”
Biometrics and facial recognition will further speed up security, and robotics and AI will be trialled to respond to simple passenger requests. HIA will also explore the use of blockchain for rapid, secure data sharing across the network. “Automated decision-making, as the next major trend, will see the use of technology to analyze real-time airport operations to aid in decision-making, which in turn leaves no room for wrong decisions.”