Jose Manuel Hesse Martin is an Aeronautic Engineer and currently works as Operations Director at ISDEFE.
“The best model is one that allows us to provide the best service at the lowest possible cost, guaranteeing that the airport business is sustainable.”
Your training as an aeronautical engineer and your professional experience of several decades in the field of airport planning and management provide the best guarantee for you to give us a brief retrospective of how airport infrastructures have evolved…
There is no doubt that airport infrastructures, and especially terminal buildings, have undergone a profound transformation in recent years, which could be summarised graphically in the idea that concrete no longer prevails at the airport, but systems do.
Conceptually, looking at terminal buildings, it can be said that these have gone from being “unique buildings” to being “containers of processes”.
Airport infrastructures have always been the necessary element for the provision of services, but although in the past the infrastructure was designed and the services were adapted to it, now it is the processes that are defined to make them as efficient as possible, and the infrastructure (concrete and systems) is transformed into a facilitating element and is now never the main element of the design, as was the case in the past.
What is your notion of “the airport of the future”?
One of the many possible definitions of an airport is “a city that you pass through”: the airport is a city where no one lives, people just pass through it, but it has all the complications of a city. Along these lines, the airport of the future could be defined as a “smart city that you pass through”.
It is certain that the airport of the future will be an airport in which airport processes will be designed with a focus on facilitation and, thanks to digitalisation and the intensive use of technologies such as Big Data, blockchain, the IoT and machine learning, these processes will be almost transparent for the passenger, while at the same time allowing the design of new business models by creating new products and services.
The automation of processes and the implementation of the latest technologies are aimed at reducing waiting times at airports. However, the new airport infrastructures are practically turning into cities where passengers can enjoy new experiences while waiting for their plane to take off. Isn’t there a certain contradiction?
Apparently there is. It is evident that the large commercial spaces that are designed in terminal buildings are at odds with the idea of an airport that prioritises minimising the route from the entrance door of the building to the boarding gate.
As is usually the case in other commercial activities, the solution lies in the segmentation of passengers and in understanding that each passenger segment has different priorities.
Terminals must offer “fast lanes” that allow the regular passenger to reduce the time needed to access the plane together with “slow life” spaces, where passengers can enjoy leisure experiences or areas where they can continue with their work while waiting.
In short, the airport must be able to guarantee, in some cases, that the time needed to reach the boarding gate is as short as possible, while in others offering the most desirable space in the city to relax in or continue with work, while waiting for boarding.
With regard to airport management, what do you think is the best model for achieving efficiency in the airport business?
From my point of view, the best model is one that allows us to provide the best service at the lowest possible cost, guaranteeing that the airport business is sustainable. It is not a matter of choosing between public or private; it is a matter of the model guaranteeing efficiency and quality of service.
Airports are monopolies (it can be said that real competition only exists at the level of the large hubs), so reducing costs to ensure the lowest possible prices for their services must be one of the main priorities of the model. The other must be to guarantee the quality of the services provided and the minimisation of their impact on the environment, all this guaranteeing sufficient income for the sustainability of the business, but without expecting high returns on investments, at least from the “aeronautical” income.
As an expert with deep knowledge of the aviation sector, what is the difference between investing in infrastructure in established markets such as Europe and the United States, versus investing in new airports in the Asia Pacific or Middle East area?
Both Europe and the U.S. are mature markets that at the same time are highly regulated. In these markets, investing in airports that do not require the expansion of their infrastructures is, in the long term, a safe investment and, in principle, free of unforeseen risks.
On the other hand, if the airport facilities need to be expanded, the expansion may require a long and sometimes almost impossible process, which complicates the valuation of the concession as there is temporary uncertainty as to when the necessary infrastructure will be available in order to guarantee the growth of demand and, with it, the revenues that make the concession viable.
The markets of Asia Pacific or the Middle East are much more dynamic growth markets in which strong growth in activity can be expected in the short term, so investing in new airports requires strong initial investments in a context of less political stability in the medium and long term, which increases the risk.
Recently, we participated in a conference entitled “Aerospace Architecture and Engineering”, where the increasingly intense and collaborative relationship between these two professions was discussed, giving rise to a new term: the “Archiengineers”. From your point of view, how has this collaborative symbiosis evolved in recent years?
Throughout my years of experience I have always perceived this lack of understanding between the engineer and the architect, the former more focused on processes and the latter on the general conception of the building from the spatial and aesthetic point of view.
I must say that during the construction of the T4 terminal at Madrid airport this was not the case, there was magnificent coordination between the team of engineers and the team of architects and numerous decisions were taken jointly, which allowed valid solutions to be arrived at, both from a functional and aesthetic point of view.
The future must follow this path; terminals must be the result of teamwork, a team made up of the different professionals who will guarantee that all the aspects that define a modern and efficient terminal will be taken into account, and this includes more than just architects and engineers.