Can Your Airport Operations Take a Punch? New Ways to Think About Airport Resiliency

If it seems like the risk of aviation system disruption is growing, it’s not your imagination.

Natural disasters, mechanical failures, cyberattack, human error — all have long presented risks to airport operations and safety. What’s different now is the growing complexity of the systems being threatened, the dependence these systems often have on one another and the chain of consequences an unforeseen event can trigger.

The questions that keep airport operators awake at night: Are we ready? Can our airport withstand an upset condition and bounce back quickly?

You don’t need to wait for an incident to find out. The answer will become clear if you regularly plan, test, monitor and adapt to scenarios and risks that could impact your airport’s ability to function. That’s how you bolster the flexibility of an airport’s physical infrastructure and the adaptability of its operating procedures. These efforts are essential to airport resiliency and recovery.

Building Resiliency the Smart Way

Make your disaster recovery plan a living document. While an airport’s utility infrastructure technology may remain unchanged for decades, most aviation technologies and systems have life expectancies comparable to that of a smartphone. Older solutions may be incompatible with or unsupported by newer ones. When disruptions occur, decisions based on old or incomplete information can lead to delays and unforced errors.

In a resilient airport, recovery plans — like smartphones — need to be updated to shield against new threats or conditions. Among other things, these plans identify the party responsible for each major piece of equipment and system, with contact information for the person or team responsible for restoring its operation. Because designated personnel may leave an organization or service contracts expire, it is important to revisit these items from time to time. It’s equally important to communicate the relationships and dependencies among systems. A chilled water system may be responsible for maintaining operating temperatures inside an FAA-run data center where flight computers are housed. A malfunction or loss in that system has the potential to upend airport resiliency and operations in far-reaching ways.

Use retrocommissioning tactics to simulate failure scenarios. The resiliency of mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), technology and other critical systems can be tested by individually retrocommissioning those systems in a controlled environment at a time and place of your choosing, rather than in a disaster scenario. Think of retrocommissioning your facility as a like a 100,000-mile tuneup for your car. By testing critical pieces of equipment and simulating failure scenarios, you can benchmark performance, identify unexpected failures and probe for soft spots in larger system responses.

Integrated systems testing assesses the interaction of systems that need to work together seamlessly. By shutting off the power feed in a planned, off-hours event, you can identify new issues or verify the recovery of your system after a power loss, testing your system's ability to come back online when you must rely on emergency generators or backup power. You may also discover unknown incompatibility issues or identify equipment or control panels that lack an uninterrupted power supply, which may affect the automatic restart or recovery of your operation.

Through the retrocommissioning process, you can identify these needles in a resiliency haystack. Until these issues are identified and rectified or suitable workarounds are in place, the startup of your smart facility's interwoven smart systems can be threatened. With a good retrocommissioning program you can learn which systems are fully automated and can recover on their own, which do not, and how complex, interdependent systems return to normal operations. Such information can be used to update the disaster recovery plan.

Treat connectivity and technology like utilities. An airport’s operation depends on its ability to communicate, process and update information from a multitude of sources in real time. That includes everything from self-serve kiosks and flight information screens to baggage handling and public address systems. The connectivity and technologies that support these and other operating systems are as essential to an airport as electrical, water and natural gas service. All, therefore, should be treated like utilities and designed with the same level of redundancy and backup as other critical infrastructure required for operation.

Look for off-site resiliency risks. Not all systems impacting airport operations are located on airport property or are within the airport’s control. An increasing number of systems and operations are hosted off-site. While this can sometimes work to the airport’s advantage, it can also raise different concerns. For example, you can generally have high confidence in offsite data centers owned and operated by big tech companies, whose extensive backup systems help to minimize service disruption — as long as the airport has multiple connections to that service provider.

When an off-site service goes down, recovery can be difficult to manage. To mitigate these risks, off-site service providers and contractors should be contractually obligated to provide the same level of backup and redundancy as on-site providers.

Set realistic recovery goals and priorities. No two airport disruptions are alike. Rather than creating a detailed recovery plan for every possible scenario, your time is better spent building flexibility into your physical infrastructure, operations and recovery plans. By doing so, you enhance your ability to adapt to whatever situation might arise.

Your response to any given disruption will depend on your goals and priorities, and the financial implications of each. Procedures for maintaining critical operations and systems — transitioning to and from manual systems — and other recovery efforts can then be adapted as needed.

Use technology — and cross-training — as force multipliers. While the aviation industry recovered more quickly from the pandemic than predicted, staffing has not always kept pace. Stakeholders now rely on technology, more than ever, to fill staffing gaps. For example, fault-detection diagnostics make it possible to monitor, detect and identify equipment operational issues from central control rooms.

Fault-detection diagnostics overlaid on building automation systems analyze the data provided and help managers prioritize critical maintenance needs, enabling you to make optimal use of limited operation and maintenance resources. Unfilled positions inside airport terminals are increasingly filled by self-service kiosks used for everything from checking in for flights to ordering lunch. When these systems fail, returning to older manual systems can be challenging. To boost resiliency, staff should be cross-trained in critical functions to be able to pitch in where needed during an upset.

It’s impossible to calculate the value of a robust and resilient airport. But we have all seen the price an airport pays in its absence. The ability to bounce back quicky and safely is worth the investment.

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Aviation Special Report


Carl Poettker, PE, CxA

Design-Build and Field Commissioning

Mike Zoia

Business Development Manager