As President and CEO of the GTAA (Greater Toronto Airports Authority) – the operator of Toronto Pearson International Airport, Canada’s largest airport facility – Deborah Flint knows better than most the disruptive power of COVID-19, with the air transportation sector hit particularly hard by the pandemic. That said, she declares herself “optimistic” about the future and is resolutely focused on longer-term challenges and opportunities, from digital approaches to sustainability to transforming the customer experience. 

The GTAA is focusing hard on the environmental sustainability pillar of its Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) program, including exploring innovative digital solutions to green issues. “The aviation industry is highly committed to the reality that we have to change very quickly to become a greener and more sustainable industry,” says Deborah Flint. “Solutions will come from a number of places, including digital technology. Technology will help us to perform more efficiently and reduce emissions significantly. At Pearson, we invested several years ago in a digital tool called A-CDM, which stands for ‘airport collaborative decision making’. Essentially, I would describe it as taking a freeway that has no signage or lanes and digitizing it to create digital lanes and signage. For us as an airport, we have already found incredible operational efficiency, with aircraft moving more effectively and efficiently with fewer delays, which of course creates less fuel burn. It’s an opportunity to create a better and greener airspace.” 

Digital innovation is also critical to the GTAA’s growth strategy as it responds to continued post-pandemic disruption. “We are at a time when digital transformation has never been as critical as it is now,” she says. “At Pearson, and broadly across large hub airports like ours, revenue was typically driven by one-third visiting family and relatives, one-third leisure travel and one-third business. And while business travel is returning, it is very slow. Rapid digital transformation is going to be critical for airports and the air sector to be more competitive. We have got to offer more certainty and more predictability to both travelers and carriers so that they operate more efficiently at a time where margins are going to be more precious than ever.” 

Digital solutions will also be critical for rethinking air travel from the customer perspective – in particular delivering a safe travel experience by creating a healthy, low-touch, seamless airport journey. “We quickly recognized at the beginning of the pandemic that healthy travel was going to be a factor in passengers’ decision-making and their expectations for the long term, if not permanently,” she explains. “We saw an opportunity to digitally convey information to our stakeholders – both employees and our customers – to reassure them about the Pearson Airport travel process. So, just one example is that we took our outdoor air-quality monitors, which are typically distributed across our facilities or in neighborhoods, and brought them inside so that our passengers could digitally see the actual real-time air quality status of our terminals.” 

While the sector faces significant ongoing challenges, Deborah Flint is proud of the way the industry as a whole has collaborated. “It may be something that the public doesn’t see, but I have seen more cooperation and collaboration across all the elements of the industry than ever,” she says. “It’s clear that we are all on the same team fighting this fight to restore the industry. The level of collaboration and idea-sharing is actually very, very strong.”                                   

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