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Interview with Christian Onselaere, ADB Safegate

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Christian Onselaere heads ADB Safegate, a world leader for advanced solutions for aircraft guidance on the ground. He has more than 30 years of international experience in the telecommunication and airport industries in leadership roles in general management, sales and marketing, project management and R&D. Christian holds a Master’s Degree in Computer Science and Electronics Engineering from the University of Gent in Belgium.

“Sustainability is aviation’s license to grow and the whole industry needs to work together”.


Global Market Forecast anticipates that air traffic will grow at 4.5 per cent annually, requiring some 33,000 new passengers. Are airports prepared to assume this passenger growth?

Airport growth is nothing new. Actually air traffic has been doubling every 15 years since the 1970’s. Airport congestion is a growing trend and many major airports around the world are now operating at or beyond capacity. As airports become constrained, on-time performance drops and for air travelers this can mean delays. Wasted time and money for passengers, airlines and airports as well as loss of reputation and lost opportunities for the cities. Are airports prepared? Well, the industry is expanding global capacity, and new airports, infrastructure, as well as runways and terminals are being added. However, the already planned expansion will still fall short, and fail to serve the increased demand for air travel fueled by the growing global middle class. There are other ways to meet the demand – in fact, most often airports can do more with what they already have. 


How is the airport of the future model proposed by ADB Safegate? How can airports be greener when the aviation industry still has a high impact on our planet?

Traditionally, airports are structured in “stakeholder silos” with gate, airfield and the tower operating independently. Sometimes, this creates difficulties in gaining an overview of the complete sequence from approach to departure. Since many of today’s airports were constructed and put into operation in the 1960´s and 1970’s, they are now “locked in” into the cities and face limited possibility to expand geographically in response to the increased demand. Quite often, existing infrastructure is not used in the most efficient way and often prevents airport operations from reaching full capacity. The ADB SAFEGATE model is about collaboration and enabling the different parts of the airport to work together across silos. This optimizes operational processes, improves efficiency and airport performance. Most often, it also means greener performance. So even if air traffic demand is raising overall, improved operational efficiency means aircraft are spending less time waiting both on the ground as well as in holding patterns and therefore relatively less fuel burn and CO2 emissions. Sustainability is aviation’s license to grow and the whole industry needs to work together. When we do our job well and use our experience from gate, airfield and the tower towards solutions for more efficient airport operations, we also contribute to a greener industry.  


What are the markets where you identify new opportunities for aviation engineering in the future?

Airport congestion and thus limited resilience is thus an everyday situation at many major airports, causing difficulties regardless of the weather. Airports constantly need to explore how to capitalize on the opportunities while managing capacity and growth. The questions airports need to answer are many: How to handle growth? How to boost profits and control costs? How to comply with the latest regulations? How to operate more sustainably? How to enhance safety?   


In an increasingly globalised world, is it possible to maintain and enhance the characteristics of each airport while being a reflection of the culture to which they belong?

Yes, and it maybe even more so in a globalized world where the uniqueness and characteristics of the specific country or city become even more important to highlight. Airports play an important role, making the first impression of a city and we can see many examples of the world’s top airports aiming to reflect the quality of life their specific cities offer. When designing an airport, the architect’s task is greater than building an airport and is rather to reflect the city. For us at ADB SAFEGATE, airport design has a different meaning. When we talk about design we often talk about airfield design or designing the airports operational processes in an optimal way, but just like the architecture, every airfield is also different. Every airport has its specificities and one solution will not fit all but must be tailored to each airport´s demands, environment and business objectives. Our strategy and consultative approach is to understand these objectives and create cost-effective solutions to resolve an airport´s most pressing challenges. This can encompass every aspect of air traffic control and guidance from approach, runway and taxiway lighting to tower-based traffic control systems, and intelligent gate and docking automation.


How are new technologies improving the passenger experience at airports? What do you think of the concept of airports as “aero cities”?

As a direct result of the growing demand for air travel, some larger commercial airports have become international transport nodes and are acting as gateways to countries and continents. They have grown to become destinations or “aero cities”. This of course results in a greater choice of services and enhances the passenger experience. For the airports as well as for a wide range of terminal focused companies, the potential for non-aeronautical revenues increases. However, ADB SAFEGATE focuses on solutions and technologies to improve efficiency and airport performance from aircraft approach to departure. We contribute to the enhanced passenger experience in terms of efficiency, safety and sustainability. We offer optimized solutions for gate, airfield and the tower. These shorten turnaround and taxi time, increase predictability and reduce workload for air traffic controllers at the airports, and thus improve passenger experience.  


More than 100 years of experience and over 2,000 airports served. What is your proposal for finding solutions in the most cost-effective and sustainable way?

 Again, every airport is unique so there is no such thing as an identic solution that fits all. But working together with the airports towards a clear and shared goal is key. The first step to customer success in terms of efficiency, safety and sustainability is to listen and understand the airport’s need and operations. In order to do so, our experts conduct a detailed analysis of traffic flow and airfield, tower and gate operational processes. Having identified the areas that need improvement, we can create a new operational scheme that meets the airport’s business and strategic objectives. Next, we can work with the airport to design a complete airport operations solution that integrates systems as required to implement new, optimized operational processes. Helping airports to improve airport performance from approach to departure is not only our vision but forms the basis of our day-to day work.  We use our understanding of the tower, airfield and gate, and thus airports’ needs, to create intelligent, highly-integrated airport operations. We continuously raise airport performance by supporting operational integration programs like Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM), Follow The Greens (FTG) and direct requirements such as the SESAR PCP initiative.


Can you tell us about the main ongoing projects ADB SAFEGATE is working on?

We´ve started off talking about growing air traffic demand and the need for collaboration between stakeholders. The SESAR Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) program has been implemented in 20 European airports so far as a direct response to airport congestion, and is vital to increasing capacity. In a project at CDG and ORY, ADB SAFEGATE we will design, implement, maintain and support our SafeControl – Apron Management System and our Safedock Advanced Visual Docking and Guidance Systems (A-VDGS) which implementations will strengthen the A-CDM process further at both airports.

Another recent example is the fastest growing airport in the UK outside London, Birmingham Airport. We have a long history within its gate and airfield infrastructure, and we now are installing an Integrated Tower Solution to enable A-CDM. This will improve real-time information shared between the airport stakeholders ─ airlines, ground handlers and air traffic control. Greater predictability is only one of the expected outcomes here.

Together, with our holistic approach, we strive to sustain long term relationships with our customers. When Abu Dhabi International Airport decided to undertake one of its most ambitious expansion projects, ADB SAFEGATE was selected as the main contractor. The multi-year framework agreement covers design, construction, operation and maintenance of airfield lighting systems works and service. This partnership will enable the airport to be more dynamic, improve the traveler experience and create additional capacity for traffic growth while maintaining world-class standards of airside safety and compliance.

Another interesting project is Lahore Airport, Pakistan, where operations suffered every winter due to dense fog. We helped weather proof the airport in a project that involved gate, airfield as well as the tower and increased throughput from 5 to 29 aircraft in low visibility – in only 12 months’ time.

With our 900 employees we operate in more than 175 countries and together we serve over 2,000 airports globally, from the world´s busiest airports to others in emerging markets. We have a lot going on and I am glad to say we, like the industry in general, are quite busy but a new project is just as exciting every time. Only a few days ago we signed two new contracts – one in Sri Lanka and the other in Chile. I´m glad to work in a dynamic and innovative industry as aviation with so many passionate and knowledgeable persons. You just cannot stop learning.



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