November’s inter airport Europe event defied the odds and delivered an important opportunity for the industry to reconnect. Gordon Smith was in Munich and recaps some of the hot topics among delegates.

The sprawling halls of the Munich Messe trade fair centre are, by definition, no stranger to reunions, but this gathering was different. Not since 2019 had the global airport industry come together in person to reflect on the past, digest the status quo and plot a brighter future. This 23rd edition of inter airport Europe, formally known as the International Exhibition for Airport Equipment, Technology, Design & Services, certainly wasn’t the biggest, but was arguably the most important in the history of the show.

Official figures suggest that 10,000 people were in attendance across the four-day event, with around half of these being trade visitors. Despite continued restrictions on international travel to and from some destinations, representatives from 79 countries made the journey to Bavaria to a show billed as ‘the runway to recovery’.

This narrative was apparent throughout the conference programme, including from Nicola Hamann, managing director of the organisers, Mack-Brooks Exhibitions, in her opening remarks to delegates. She struck a rousing tone in the face of adversity, arguing that the industry could, and would, build back stronger: “For manufacturers and providers of airport equipment and services at this year’s show, these challenges and opportunities are drivers for innovation and further technical development. Everyone involved has been going the extra mile this year to make this event possible,” she noted.

This message was echoed by Ralph Beisel, general manager of ADV, the German Airports Association, who said a collective spirit would help the sector bounce back from the worst of the challenges: “We want to look forward and overcome COVID-19, stay together as an industry, believe in our passion for aviation and try to get over this pandemic to restart our business. ‘Runway to recovery’ is an excellent title for this [event] because we want to become profitable again. For that we need strong markets, good products and innovation. The other big challenge is bringing our industry to a growth path which is in line with the sustainability requirements. We have a clear commitment, as airports, airlines and the whole industry, to bring CO2 emissions down to net zero.”

Inter airport Europe 2021

Comprehensive content

As usual, the exhibition was split into three core segments, with interTERMINAL, covering operations, infrastructure, and technical installations as well as interior specifications, furnishings, architectural components, and other design elements. Across the hall, interDATA examined the latest IT solutions essential for any 21st century airport, and finally interRAMP focused on key areas of ground support equipment, ground handling and airfield installations.

While diverse voices from across the airport industry were represented at the show, there were several common themes apparent when speaking to international exhibitors and trade visitors. The first of these – as evidenced by the continued need for delegates to wear medical-grade face masks at all times – was that the pandemic is far from over and many airports are still in de facto disaster mode. Against this backdrop, there were two general schools of thought – those who ‘don’t want to waste a crisis’ and see this as a once in a generation opportunity to undertake logistically challenging upgrades, and those who have reined in their capital expenditure projects to protect cash flow. Naturally, there is no right or wrong answer, as the approach taken will be heavily influenced by the circumstances faced by each airport. Many gateways which had already committed to significant infrastructure programmes found it more cost effective to complete these rather than mothball the works mid-project. Equally, some others had already formally signed off the financing for renovation and other construction schemes, with little scope for awkward backtracking when COVID-19 hit.

A further major theme was the need for the sector and its stakeholders to do more to improve environmental pledges and policies. While there was concern among some attendees that the pandemic could derail pre-crisis sustainability efforts, the general consensus was that the pressure to embrace greener practices was greater than ever. The need for change was all the more visible given that the event was taking place as world leaders simultaneously gathered in Glasgow for the United Nations 26th Climate Change Conference of the Parties, better known as COP26. Within this wider context, there was heated debate in Munich about the merits of fresh regulatory intervention to encourage the sector to expedite its eco initiatives, versus a self-improvement approach.

Inter airport Europe 2021

Product focus

Numerous new goods, systems and services presented at the show had a focus on cost-efficiency, low or zero emissions, enhanced passenger experience, automation, and/or digitalisation. While there were some notable absences, many of the major players were in attendance to showcase their latest products and reconnect with customers old and new. These included Darmec’s NS-E series of conveyor belt loaders which are typically equipped with an 80V 240Ah traction battery that powers an electric motor, an electric motor-pump for hydrostatic power steering, as well as a brake booster. The Italian GSE specialist also presented its new baggage tractor with a 25kn drawbar pull, variable hydrostatic capacity and independent front wheel with hydraulic suspension. Keeping with the greener theme, Bulmor’s SideBull range generated a buzz with its newest fully electric-powered ambulift. Innovative battery technology allows its E SideBull XLe and XXLe (the larger model suitable for use up to 8.1m including serving the upper deck of the Airbus A380) to operate with lead acid or fast-charge Li-Ion, with the latter able to recharge to 50% in only 40 minutes, helping boost operational efficiency on the apron. The company claims this concept lowers maintenance costs by up to 50% compared to previous generation equipment, with the added bonus of removing up to 400,000kg of CO2 over the lifetime of the vehicle.

Elsewhere, ADB SAFEGATE presented its ‘Airfield 4.0’ roadmap, which uses digital technologies such as wireless telemetry and sensors to automate and enable two-way communication between airfield assets and stakeholders. As an example, the status of airfield lights and other airfield assets can be aggregated, delivered upstream to cloud computing tools that analyse performance and communicated to various control systems. The results are shared via performance dashboards which help operations and maintenance staff to detect patterns and make quick, accurate decisions. Speaking at the show, Regardt Willer from ADB Safegate said the platform “promises to do for airports, what ‘Industry 4.0’ is doing for traditional manufacturing. We’re moving away from providing isolated stand-alone hardware commodities to solutions driven by software that deliver interconnected devices and control systems which will communicate seamlessly both ways.” Other highlights included T-Systems partnering with Frequentis in a bid to help digitise airports worldwide, TCR’s latest insights into how telematics can help reduce carbon intensity without major investment, and Sweden’s Aerowash, which presented its latest cleaning robot, the AW 18, for the first time.

Amid the wave of futuristic digital systems and processes, the show also offered opportunities for smaller players to bring their goods to the market. One such example came from Iceland’s Mannvirki & Malbik, which presented the Safety Kross for the first time. Made using the same highly durable material as fishing nets found in and around the North Atlantic, the reusable product allows airfields to show that a runway or taxiway is temporarily closed without the use of harmful paints or sprays. The Safety Kross is the brainchild of civil engineer and asphalt specialist (and former fisherman) Sigurður Ingi Kristófersson, who identified the need for a more convenient and sustainable way to help airports follow ICAO and EASA regulations. It is also a well-timed reminder that sometimes ultra low-tech, but highly sustainable solutions can help address problems faced by airport operators.

Inter airport Europe in itself won’t help solve the enormous challenges facing the sector, but the coming together of industry partners was a much-needed reminder of the power of collaboration. The ‘runway to recovery’ might be long and bumpy in places, but there are high hopes that by the time the event returns to Munich on October 10, 2023, the blue skies will have emerged once again.

Bulmor at inter airport Europe