“We provide the industry with the future leaders of aviation”
The Centre for Air Transport Management at Cranfield University is the leading world centre for postgraduate teaching in air transport management with a worldwide reputation for excellence in research in air transport. Dr Pere Suau-Sanchez, who joined Cranfield in 2012, is Lecturer and Course Director for the full-time MSc and executive part-time MSc in Airport Planning and Management.
With such an extensive track-record in the field of specialist aviation education, how has Cranfield contributed to the sector over the years? What is the importance of institutions such as yours in the air transport sector?
Cranfield University has pioneered the development of education programmes that enhance the careers of our learners. We are, in fact, the largest UK provider of Master-level graduates in technology, engineering and management education. In this regard, in 2014, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of our MSc in Air Transport Management, and over the years our more than 1,300 Air Transport Management and Airport Planning and Management graduates have influenced every aspect of the air transport business.
We provide the industry with the future leaders of aviation, many of our graduates already have their next job or promotion lined up before they leave and go on to such influential positions within the industry. We have been able to produce high-calibre graduates throughout half a century thanks to a combination of strategies. Firstly, thanks to our vast industrial and academic experience we provide research-led teaching sessions and programmes to ensure the relevance and cutting-edge content of our courses. Secondly, we use our specialist facilities, which include our own aircraft fleet and airport, accident investigation laboratory and flight simulators among others. Thirdly, we align our courses to the industry reality, we invite keynote speakers and professionals from the industry; also, our industry advisory board works alongside our academics to develop and enhance our courses and examine new educational ideas. In addition, since the aviation industry is extremely global and diverse, we also provide diverse experience by having a large team of permanent staff from a diverse number of countries and backgrounds, as well as by ensuring that each cohort has the greatest possible diversity in terms of nationality and background of the students.
How do you see the future for this type of specialist education in the future? We are seeing a lot of changes and trends in the airport sector as a whole, how does this affect you?
Focusing on the airport industry, we feel that companies are not looking anymore for traditional profiles. The airport industry and the nature of work have changed, and so has the profile of professionals needed. In the past, the industry was highly focused on infrastructure building and engineering solutions; now, only commercially-driven projects and firms are able to survive in an increasingly competitive market. Since the complexity of the projects has increased, having multidisciplinary teams is not always enough. Individuals need to complement their engineering and planning technical knowledge with economics, financial and managerial skills in order to perform and feel comfortable working in projects that require of hybrid approaches. In this regard, we have also seen how some of the most innovative airport managerial proposals have come from professionals that were previously working at very different industries, such as retail. In addition, we have also observed the increasing importance of soft skills (e.g., communication, flexibility, time management, leadership, being a team player, etc.) have become essential for the success of firms in the airport industry.
Against this background, every year, we try to implement the required modifications to our MSc in Airport Planning and Management in order to align it as much as possible with the industry dynamics. For example, last year we completely redesigned the ‘Airport Finance and Business Management’ and the ‘Airport Design’ modules, as well as we have increased the number of group exercises and presentations.
In this regard and in terms of the evolution of the course, it is worth mentioning that Higher Education is currently under a major transformation linked to the widespread of Technology Enhancement Learning (TEL). The use of technology in Higher Education can help delivering an enriched student experience. In our Centre, we use technology in class to share students’ ideas through social media, to help students make the acquired learning relevant in their work, and to personalise learning and provide a bespoke career development service students and alumni. In this regard, since we moved to a fully-digital education model a couple of years ago, our students enjoy a discount to purchase a tablet when they register. Using tablets has allowed us to start implementing innovative learning techniques such as ‘blended learning’ –a mix between face-to-face and digital delivery– and ‘flipped classrooms’ –devote more class time to collaborative projects, problem solving and discussion–.
Given the global nature of the airport sector, how important do you think it is for institutions such as Cranfield to open centres in different countries. What factors influence the decision on where to open a new centre?
The air transport and airport industry has indeed become increasingly global and the world’s economic centre of gravity is moving eastwards, what is translated into a significant increase of air transport activity and airport projects in the Middle East and Asia. To answer to this increasing demand, two years ago, we partnered with the Singapore Aviation Academy to offer our Executive part-time MSc in Air Transport Management. Being at Singapore gives us access to the Southeast Asian and West African market. We chose it for its global and regional accessibility and tradition as a higher education hub in the region. The existing relationship with the Singapore Aviation Academy also played a key role. It is important to highlight that this is exactly the same Executive course as the one we offer in Cranfield, but in Singapore. Our Cranfield lectures fly to Singapore to deliver the teaching and the Singapore students can benefit from the offer of optional modules available in Singapore and Cranfield, as well as access to our dataset and library facilities online. After the successful launch of the Executive part-time MSc in Air Transport Management in Singapore, we are assessing the possibility of also offering in the near future the Executive part-time MSc in Airport Planning and Management.
What is the typical geographic profile of your students both in terms of their origin and also in terms of where they end up working after completing their studies?
Overall, considering both the full-time and executive part-time courses in Airport Planning and Management, we have a very diverse population of students. Around 50% of them are from the European Union, being Spain, France, The Netherlands and Germany the countries contributing with more students. In terms of overseas students, we have an increasing number of students from Asia, particularly from Indonesia, India, China and Hong Kong, and the Middle East, especially from the United Arab Emirates and Oman. We also have students from Africa and some from North and Latin America. Concerning the geographical distribution of jobs that our graduates find, the emerging markets, especially the Middle East, have been hiring a substantial number of graduates to support the strong and sustained growth of their airports and airlines. We are also happy to see how European firms in the areas of airport design, engineering and airport transactions that have an international portfolio of clients, especially in Asia and South America, show again an important capacity to absorb graduates. We are very happy because we all of our students can secure a job in leading sector firms before or shortly after finishing their MSc course.
How do you think the links between specialist aviation education institutions and industry businesses can be improved?
We try to be proactive and we are constantly assessing the way in which we interact and exchange ideas with the industry. As a matter of fact, we are just about to re-launch our Industry Advisory Board, which will help us having a closer relationship with the industry and align our offer to answer the evolving challenges that the industry face.
We also try to be close to the airport industry by sharing our industrial and academic research in the main industry gatherings, such as the Global Airport Development Conference or the Passenger Terminal Expo Conference. The feedback received and the networking developed in this type of forums are of major importance for continue being world leaders in airport planning and management higher education.
Also, we provide independent research advice and consultancy services to Governments, airport organisations and other consultancy firms.
Finally, in terms of areas to improve, probably we would like see more MSc thesis sponsored by industrial partners. But, we understand that it is not always easy to balance the requirements of academic research with commercial interests.
In terms of the overall airport sector, one of the most current trends seems to be towards the mega-hub airport. There almost seems to be a competition to create the world’s largest airport. What are your views on this?
There seems to be indeed a competition among several countries to have the larger hub airport. The critical importance of economies of density (economies of density arise when the average unit cost in a route declines as a result of an increased volume of traffic in the route) in airline economics means that today only airports with an airline hub can offer an extensive range of flights to intercontinental destinations, thus giving those airports and regions a competitive advantage in attracting business and knowledge-intensive activities in which the face-to-face exchange of information is vital. It is true, however, that improvements to aircraft technology and changing airline business models are creating new opportunities for second-tier cities, but at a global scale they are not yet significant enough to shadow the market power of large hub airports.
Nevertheless, I think that probably more research should go into analysing the limits to growth and the diseconomies linked to large airports. Certainly, the atomization of air traffic increases operating costs, but there could also be a limit to the idea of economies of scale (economies of scale arise when the cost per unit of output decreases with increasing scale of operation as fixed costs are spread out over more units of output). For example, large hub airports can suffer from air space congestion, ground transport access congestion, or penalise the passenger experience by making the passengers endure long walking distances to connect between flights. Creativity and technological advances can sometimes help to fight these diseconomies, but research has shown that some airports operate under decreasing returns to scale.
Finally, I might say that the concept of airport capacity could be challenged and probably be substituted by the idea of environmental capacity, which takes into account the noise pollution airports cause and the impact they have on the communities around them.