On September 26-28, 2023, the global commercial aviation community will descend on Lisbon, Portugal for one of its most important gatherings of the year.
Whereas events such as the Paris or Farnborough air shows are mostly centred on buying, selling, and launching new aircraft, the World Aviation Festival focuses on the strategic, operational, and commercial aspects of the air travel business.
“The World Aviation Festival actually started out as the Low-Cost Airlines Congress in 2003 in London at the QE2 Centre,” Daniel Boyle, GM of Transport at Terrapinn, the show’s organizer, told AeroTime.
“At a time when low-cost carriers had just begun to start riding the wave of the online sales boom, it was an event focused purely on LCCs [low-cost airlines] and their continuing plight to optimize costs and boost revenue. Of course, over time the event has evolved (and rebranded) to become something more than just about LCCs.”
Though the 2023 event is taking place in Lisbon, the World Aviation Festival does not have a fixed location. The 2022 edition took place in Amsterdam, prior to which the event was held in London.
But perhaps what is most remarkable is the festival’s ability to constantly adapt to the changing needs and priorities of one of the most dynamic industries out there.
“The big change was in 2013 when we thought ‘why limit ourselves to the LCC market?’ At the time digital transformation, customer experience and retailing were becoming more of a priority. So we decided to rebrand to what is now the World Aviation Festival and expand our reach beyond just LCCs, so we brought in all types, FSCs, Hybrids, Leisure etc.,” Boyle explained.
“We started relatively small, adding on new topics, themes and incorporating new speakers from a variety of carriers and that’s when the vision became clear. All of these areas of the business, be it retailing, loyalty, Revenue Management or even IROPS, are all inherently connected to the customer, so we then scaled up quickly and saw a noticeable uptick in attendance year on year from there on.”
To put this into context, Boyle explained that the first World Low Cost Airlines Congress back in 2013 had an overall attendance of around 350 (and no, there are no zeroes missing). This figure included all delegates, sponsors and speakers.
Fast forward to 2023 and the festival will feature more than 500 speakers, 250 sponsors and exhibitors, including more than a hundred startup companies, as well as several thousand delegates – altogether well above the 5,000-attendee mark.
The show aims to provide an excellent platform for the world’s commercial airlines and airports to source new partners, new ideas and strategies for growth. In this regard, one element that has seen its relevance grow every year is technology.
The show is also a major marketplace for the world’s leading suppliers of airline technology, ranging from large multinational systems suppliers, all the way to startups, which have their own dedicated exhibition area and an agenda of related activities.
Not surprisingly, sustainability has taken on particular prominence over the last couple of years.
“This was a trend that was not at the forefront of our event five-six years ago. It was mentioned a little in the keynotes but it really was not something at the top of the agenda,” Boyle said. “Prior to the pandemic we did a lot of research in this area, going out to events, meeting people, and reading a lot to really understand how we could effectively incorporate more sustainability content.
“From research we came out in 2019 and decided to launch a two-day agenda purely dedicated to looking at how the industry can reach these ambitious net zero targets. The main focus seemed to be around SAF [sustainable aviation fuel], regulation and investment, so we took those themes for the launch year.
He continued: “Then, the next year, we built on that to add more technology-based discussions so looking at how airlines, airports and suppliers can use AI, IoT, weather tech and data analytics to reduce their carbon footprint.”
In the 2023 edition, sustainability runs right across the agenda, even in sessions on retail, loyalty, and customer experience.
Aware of the increasingly cross-functional nature of many airline projects, the show organizers have also been diversifying their offerings, and this is reflected in the profile of both speakers and attendees.
“The initial core audience would be from airlines working on the commercial side of the business,” Boyle explained. “This segment covers everything from CEOs to heads of Marketing, Loyalty, Retail, Customer Experience, Ancillary Revenue, Revenue Management and CIOs. What we have seen as areas such as digital transformation became more of a focus is that new job titles were emerging from the airlines, so we were very proud to bring in chief digital officers when that JT emerged.
“Then came CIDOs and heads of Emerging Tech etc. So, it is important to spot these trends and ensure that the festival brings in new areas of the business as they appear.”
He added: “In the past we would have had mainly CEOs or C-Level executives from airlines, so the quality was incredibly high from that perspective. However, with the profiles that we brought in, it was incredibly important that we maintained those standards. Of course, you are not going to have a CEO discussing the finer details of AI on operations, so we needed to find those execs that were at the top of their game in each department. So now you see leaders in every facet from the top down, be it an airport or an airline.”
Airports also have a place at World Aviation Festival. Since this segment of the industry was first introduced to the program six years ago, it has seen its presence increase significantly.
“We had seen in our research a significant lack of collaboration between airlines and airports over the years, especially when it came to data sharing, tech innovation and customer experience,” Boyle explained. “So, we launched Airport T.EX which is all about the future of the air travel experience on the ground, looking at various areas such as biometrics, automation, pre-travel, check-in, gate tech and overall passenger experience.”
He added: “It is very rare to have an event that brings in both airlines and airports, you either tend to have one or the other. So we pride ourselves on encouraging collaboration in this aspect and the airport section of the event is definitely something we are looking to further expand to provoke those discussions.”
But how has the event evolved from a qualitative point of view? Is this event attracting the same profile of speakers and attendees?
While the World Aviation Festival is a global event, it leans towards the European airline scene, with 60% of attendees coming from the EU (European Union). However, a significant presence from other parts of the world, particularly North America and the Middle East.
Terrapinn, the company organizing the show, has offices all around the world, including London, New York, Dubai, Singapore and Sydney. It has also launched some other regional shows, not just in aviation, but also areas such as solar energy and rail.
So, what criteria are important when it comes to choosing the venue? And why choose Lisbon this year?
Boyle noted that Lisbon is one of Europe’s hottest tourist destinations and home to large international events such as Web Summit (which also take place at the same venue as the World Aviation Festival). He also stated that Terrapinn has a good relationship with local operators such as TAP Air Portugal and Ana Airports.
True to its nature, though, the festival is now set move location again, heading back to Amsterdam for its 2024 edition, another city in which Terrapinn can count on local support and a prime venue, namely the RAI Exhibition Center.
“Our strapline says it all: ‘Business models. Technology. Sustainability. Innovation. For the global aviation industry’,” Boyle said. “But perhaps most importantly we want to provide our attendees with a fun experience on-site. We are after all a festival.”