Being involved in the aviation security business in a managerial position usually comes with massive responsibilities but, from time to time, it can be a pleasant burden to bear; rarely more so than when participating in international conferences. This fascinating world can be seen from various viewpoints – that of the organiser, the speaker, moderator, host or even just as a delegate. They can become addictive, but conferences are a necessity.
The world of civil aviation is awash with different conferences or summits which industry leaders can attend to share views, mingle, promote agendas, or even, sometimes, argue. Almost every key organisation in civil aviation now hosts an annual or bi-annual event – ICAO, IATA, AAAE and ACI included – whilst others host regional summits or symposia, which attract leading influential figures, regulators, operators and policy makers. Some leading civil aviation publications offer events such as forums, which also relate to airports, and others welcome us to innovation-oriented events. But, I believe, some of the more interesting occasions are those that focus on a specific topic, such as ‘behavioural analysis’, ‘cyber security’ or ‘unruly passengers’.
You cannot be considered an international sector partner without travelling overseas to share opinions, hear others’ views, gain experience and ‘talk shop’ with industry peers. Some may criticise our community as a ‘flock’, enmeshed within our own aviation-related titles and using conferences and summits as an excuse to travel, with the primary motivation to attend being to socialise with actual professional curiosity coming second. But we should attend these events.
The civil aviation world is international in nature. According to IATA, some 64% of all flights cross one or more international borders to reach their destination. Airlines (who are our major customers at airports) and aircraft manufacturers are international firms and almost all safety regulations are driven by international standards (ICAO annexes, FAA, TSA, etc.). Further, while increasing numbers of modifications are made or debated in our ever-growing industry, aviation policy updates are usually affirmed in meetings in varying destinations and away from the public sphere. Yet, to develop and nurture new ideas on how to improve processes, or for the opportunity to air an ‘experimental balloon’, decision-makers may sometimes consider using conference platforms in order to receive immediate feedback from attendees.
We need to have an appropriate arena to discuss and negotiate. International airline and airport associations highlight issues on various topics that are at the heart of our business. Having a multi-disciplinary audience at an international conference requires the consideration of a wide range of cultural sensitivities, potential geographical location problems, and geopolitical views and constraints. If we want our voice or thoughts to be heard we need to have a seat at the table, take part in the conversation, and proactively participate.
When an event includes an ‘expo’, this is a great opportunity to get a first-hand impression of new products and innovations that may offer possible solutions to improve our results and processes. Idea-sharing here nurtures the development of the next generation of inventions that will better serve us in the future.
In addition to conferences, there are also other means of communicating and transmitting messages widely to aviation community stakeholders, one example being this respectable platform for which I am currently writing, and other comparable publications. Industry journals are widely distributed among the aviation community and focus on specific topics like engineering, safety, security, defence, and environmental issues. Additional channels we may choose to transmit through might include webinars, newspapers or broadcast media channels. These are, however, no substitute for personal encounters with industry thought leaders or socialising with international peers, both of which are achieved at conferences.
Craft: The basic goals of attending an international conference include expanding one’s knowledge of what is happening in similar organisations facing similar challenges and problems, gathering views and sharing opinions, learning some best practices, bench-marking our own standards, enriching our database, developing a better awareness of the issues impacting other industry stakeholders, publishing our own accomplishments, and becoming familiar with colleagues who might be able to assist us in the future. Well-constructed conferences typically take on fewer issues and focus on debating their core topic.
Event organisers must make the agenda interesting, updating delegates with new industry trends and ensuring diverse perspectives without repeating any material. They must strive to ensure that the highest quality and most reliable data is unveiled to the audience – with the understanding that not everything can be exposed due to the nature of our business. Granting access to the presentations (upon the presenter’s approval) assists attendees in making notes and remembering key ideas that were highlighted during the sessions. It is highly recommended that conference planners create a diverse programme by including a variety of approaches, using keynote speeches alongside expert panels which involve Q&A sessions, and to allocate time for side forums like roundtables or simulations.
Unfortunately, sometimes in order to try to sell as many registrations and appeal to as many attendees as possible, there has been a tendency to try to ‘cover it all’, which may be economically smart but, to realise professionally valuable output, too ambitious. In fact, most current events try to cover multiple subjects – passengers, cargo, landside and cyber security, emergency management, insider threat security and drone defence and technology innovations relating to all of the above. The outcome is that we touch each subject for a minimal amount of time and cannot develop topics thoroughly. If we allocate more time per session, even if it means touching on fewer subjects, we are more likely to be able to draw on experts to participate on the one hand, and attract aviation employees who seek to learn on the other.
Live translation to different languages should be supplied if we are to encourage leaders from as many countries as possible to participate because, in some cases, senior management are not always fluent in English or the local language. We would like to have decision-makers on board and active in conversation and not just their PR assistance or junior-level management. If such translation is not available, it should be clearly noted in marketing materials to avoid misunderstanding and upsets.
Art: If you are planning to produce an attractive conference, you should put your mind and heart to it. It is fairly easy to hire a production firm, determine the amount of desired guests and list of topics, and they will come up with a complete package. However, from my experience both as organiser and as a participant, a more compelling result is achieved if the organiser deals with every aspect of the conference – I regard it as a form of art.
Choosing an adequate location for meetings is crucial and the venue must be in a convenient and accessible location, be neither too big nor too small, and have an appropriate seating arrangement. Being actively involved in recruiting keynote speakers and high-profile presenters who are world industry leaders is most important and the speaker line-up should be impressive on one hand, but also made up of people to whom the delegates can relate.
Creating the right ambience is important – no less so than achieving the right mix of participants. The inclusion of unique social events obviously serves as a honeypot for registrations but it should not overshadow the discussions themselves. A good conference is one that is easy to register for, provides accessible web platforms for B2B meetings, and allocates the time and space to facilitate business activities comfortably. People travelling a long distance to attend conferences want to use their time effectively by filling their schedule with relevant sessions as well as making the most of their opportunity to network, adding in new meetings as well as attending pre-arranged ones. At a conference, one can arrange a meeting in a short timeframe with some senior business colleagues, whereas trying to arrange these during their regular work schedules might take months or years.
In conclusion, despite the huge amount of effort and time it takes to craft a successful and effective conference, and despite the costs which may be incurred by delegates to attend, these events are vital in facilitating networking, idea sharing, debate, innovation and international cooperation. After all, what other type of forum allows us to share our craziest ideas and receive in return respectful, insightful and valuable feedback?
Roni Tidhar has served for the past three years as Israel Airports Authority’s Head of International Consulting Services – commercial branch. He has vast experience in civil aviation security and emergency management from his 27 years in Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport Security Division and many years parallel to that as an El Al Israeli Airlines air marshal as well as Operational Flights Security Manager – working in dozens of airports across the globe.