The twenty-first century could indeed turn out to be ‘the Asian century’, with the region’s population predicted to grow to more than five billion people, producing half of global GDP, by 2050. As for aviation and air-based tourism in Asia–Pacific, UK air traffic management company NATS says it currently accounts for more than 24 million jobs and US$500 billion in regional
economic activity.

Niall Greenwood sees growth potential in Asia

If these predictions come true, NATS’ former Managing Director of Asia–Pacific, Niall Greenwood is well aware of the implications of such rapid growth on air traffic management, with most Asian hub airports already operating above their planned capacity. According to the International Air Transport Association, estimated passenger traffic in Asia–Pacific will grow by 5.7% each year between 2013 and 2017, which is much higher than the estimated 3.9% growth in Europe and 3.6 per cent in North America.

In the role since 2015, Niall thinks this rapid Asian growth will play into one of the company’s strengths, namely its ability to squeeze the most capacity out of existing infrastructure.

Fast facts:
It’s estimated that passenger traffic in APAC airports grew by 5.7% each year between 2013 and 2017.

“I think that in 15 years all of the full-service carriers, the local carriers and the hybrid airlines will be based in Asia–Pacific, which is quite a phenomenal change in the world,” he says.

“China is going to be the largest market in the world in less than 20 years. India will probably be number three with Indonesia and Japan following shortly behind, so there’s enormous potential in growth activity in the market.”

NATS Asia–Pacific faces regional challenges

Based in Singapore since 2009, Niall highlights the importance of developing longstanding business relationships within Asia, noting the region works on soft relationships where people like to do business with those they have done business with before. While he acknowledges that establishing trust and knowledge can apply to anywhere in the world, this is especially the
case in Asia.

“You need to have prior work experience within the region, because it works very differently to the West,” he says. “Decisions are made in the West more by position and seniority, whereas in Asia it’s much more to do with experience in the region. By having previous experience, having worked in countries or worked with clients, and relationships,” he explains.

Niall Greenwood Managing Director of NATS Asia–Pacific

Decisions are made in the West more by position and seniority, whereas in Asia it’s much more to do with experience in the region.

Niall also notes that air infrastructure can be hugely expensive, and that not every Asian country wants to, or is able to, invest in such a large capital outlay. “You have big macroeconomic movements which can attract considerable investment, but in many countries that investment isn’t always available,” he says.

“For example, it’s not possible for India to finance all of the infrastructure that it would like to put in place. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has talked about flying internally for US$40 or less, but that means a lot of activity for regional airports. It is, therefore, a complex system of problems, which is then overlaid by the cultural sensitivities of getting business done in the region.”

Automated airports are the future

Despite these challenges, plenty of opportunities do exist. Another competitive advantage that NATS possesses is an ability to foresee future concepts, Niall says. This mainly revolves around advancements in technology, however he adds that this can also include processes and procedures.

There are about 100 technologies within the air traffic management space, according to Niall. This will lead to a much more automated airport with greater throughput rates and, consequently, further improvement in the airport’s economic performance. For example, he predicts a future where all airports will have digitised air traffic control towers, and that it will be the biggest change in the aviation industry since the invention of RADAR in the Second World War.

Niall Greenwood Managing Director of NATS Asia–Pacific
Niall Greenwood, Managing Director of NATS Asia–Pacific

“It means airports will no longer need to shoulder the burden of the security risk as well as the physical costs of maintaining an air traffic control tower,” Niall notes. “By using CCTV camera systems and stitching together the video, which technology now allows us to do seamlessly, we can actually operate from a bunker or a basement location with not only better visibility than you’re currently getting, but full visibility of the airport.”

In addition, NATS has technologies which can put aircraft closer together using a time-based separation approach as opposed to by distance, which traditionally would’ve been the case. Such technological advancements can lead to a greater amount of economic activity.

“We can put a smaller aircraft with larger aircraft behind it, closer together, and we can increase the number of movements by four to six movements an hour at the busy hub airports,” explains Niall.

“One slot was sold at London’s Heathrow Airport last year. The value of those slots can run into the tens of millions of pounds. You can see the economic benefit we’re generating by using technologies that can get the most out of airports.”

Safety is the number one focus

But as NATS continues on the path towards economic growth and efficiency, it does so with an awareness that safety has to remain its number one focus. “Unlike, for instance, road traffic, where there’s an acceptance that a number of cars might contact one another, that would not be acceptable within the aviation environment,” Niall says.

“We basically work for an error-free environment so we have to ensure we are safe in everything that we do, and we work in such a way to ensure that, even if an issue arises, such as two aircraft coming closer together than they should, that issue is always investigated.”

Ironically, Niall believes the best way of ensuring an error-free and safe environment is through enabling a culture where people can admit to making errors. “We have what’s known as a just culture. This means that people freely admit to any errors that have been made, procedures are changed and training is updated, to ensure that that issue doesn’t recur in the future,” says Niall.

“The standard of air safety is extremely high around the world, and NATS is bringing that standard from those busy UK airports to these rapidly growing hub airports in Asia–Pacific.”

A military approach to problem-solving

As for his business management philosophy, Niall draws from his military background, having been an Artillery Officer for the British Army for more than 17 years. He recalls a time when he was put on a tank, which are prone to tracking issues.

Whenever the track came off in the middle of the night, he had to learn how to put the track back on in the dark and in the rain. “If you’re prepared to get grubby and get dirty and solve the problem, you can earn a lot of respect,” he says.

If you’re prepared to get grubby and get dirty and solve the problem, you can earn a lot of respect.

Although he has been out of the military since 2005, Niall believes such an approach to problem-solving is not dissimilar to the way business is done in Asia. “It’s not just a matter of sitting back in your office and telling other people what to do. I personally get involved on the ground,” Niall concludes. “I like getting involved in the projects. I love meeting the clients and travelling around Asia. I have a lot of enthusiasm as well as admiration for the region.”

Niall Greenwood has since left NATS and is no longer its Managing Director of the Asia–Pacific region.