Who is Hassan Charaf?
“I was born and raised in Amsterdam and did a degree in finance, an unusual background for someone who works in innovation. Often these are people who’ve studied industrial design or innovation management. I just fell into it when I started working at KLM, right after I graduated. So, I didn’t go into the financial world at all. I wanted to work for a company that was close to my heart. KLM embodies the idea of discovering and traveling the world. It was during my traineeship at KLM that I first came into contact with innovation. I was given an assignment with the KLM mobile team, which is responsible for all mobile channels, like the KLM app. That’s where I first got a taste of what innovation is. We then set to work with a team to bring the customer experience to the next level. All the roles I subsequently took on had an element of innovation in them. That wasn’t intentional. Sometimes it had to do with KLM’s operations, sometimes it was about employees and passengers. At a certain point, this job came up as head of innovation at Schiphol, one of the largest airports in Europe. That, in combination with my passion for aviation, made me say ‘yes’ straight away.”
Weren’t you pretty young when you got that job?
“I’ve been doing this for a year now, so I was 33 at the time. I learned a great deal at KLM, it’s always been full-on. Trial and error, I made a lot of mistakes. That turned out to be enough for Schiphol to be able to become head of innovation.”
Have you ever dropped the ball at KLM?
“Let me think, there’s plenty of examples, ha ha. For example, at one point I was responsible for improving KLM’s operations. I was really young and eager back then. It had to do with a product at the gate, which would mean that boarding could be done more quickly. It did work at a certain location. But the whole idea was to be able to scale up that system. Except that it proved to be impossible. That was a rookie mistake that any innovator might make. We started with an enthusiastic group of people. But towards the end it became clear that we couldn’t roll it out at Schiphol.”
Why were you unable to scale up that new way of boarding?
“We wanted to upgrade the infrastructure. That can’t be done just like that. Another issue was that this particular product was not a priority for other parties in the organization – although faster boarding certainly was. I learned from this that it is imperative that you work well together with all parties involved from the outset so that you know where you stand in the company. When it comes to more extensive innovations, you also need to look outside the company. As is the case with sustainable aviation. If we have a vision for our product, Schiphol’s partners and the government should also share this vision. Orchestrating this cooperation is extremely important. Sometimes you have innovators who are adamant: ‘I want to do that!’ But then you end up hitting your head against the wall pretty hard. Collaboration is essential. I learned that the hard way. Although in hindsight I also discovered that it’s a lot more fun when you do things together. No matter how difficult that can be sometimes. It is the only way to make an impact.”
What typifies Schiphol’s innovation strategy?
“We launched a new innovation strategy last year. In it, we distinguish three types of innovations: Earth, Moon, and Mars. Earth innovation is an innovation that you can do in the short term and that poses hardly any risk. Moon innovation is about transforming models, wherein we explore while being fully aware of what the future will look like. You can see the moon, but you can’t get there very quickly. Mars innovation is about disruption. The introduction of entirely new value chains that we don’t know for sure how they will end up looking like.”
Can you give an example of Moon, Mars and Earth?
“Let me start with Moon innovation. Luggage handling is a good example of that. We are now looking into whether it is feasible that the luggage that passengers have for their flight via Schiphol can be dropped off at the train station where they’re coming from or going to, Brussels station, for example. In that case, they would not have to carry it around with them. Another option is to deliver luggage to their hotel address. We know what the end result could look like, just not exactly how we can get there yet. That’s basically a moon shot.”
What is an example of a Mars innovation at Schiphol?
“Sustainable taxiing, for one thing. When an airplane is taxiing from the gate to the runway, it releases a lot of CO2. Ideally, we want the aircraft to be able to taxi without the engines running. This is something that you must do in cooperation with the airline companies.”
Should we be thinking of a vehicle towing the planes to their positions?
“Yes. We’re now in the middle of conducting trials with TaxiBot, a special kind of tow truck. That sounds simple, but it really isn’t. You can’t just pull an airplane along by its nose cone because then you will break it. An external partner has developed a special type of technology for this purpose that is quite unique in the world. Once you have all these wagons on the road, you have got to consider these things as well: what does this mean in terms of safety? How will it affect traffic control? These are issues that we are currently trying to crack. It is going to take a lot of time and collaborative effort before this will be possible on a grand scale. We are working on this now so that we will have a zero-emission airport by 2030.”
Lastly, what is an example of an Earth innovation?
“That relates to the field of data and intelligence. That’s something that we know we can do, so let’s go ahead and do it. This is how we can get a better handle on our information systems, our passenger flows, as well as scheduling buses on the grounds that run from the gate to the airplanes. The operation of all this is so complex that data and intelligence can definitely help us manage operations more effectively.”
Given that Schiphol Airport is so huge, this is becoming even more important.
“Absolutely. You cannot just rely on the naked eye when dealing with these kinds of complex processes.”
Is your cooperation with the Delft start-up Hardt Hyperloop on a study into potentially locating a hyperloop stop at Schiphol Airport an example of a Mars collaboration?
“Yes. It still calls for a lot of exploratory research where passenger experience and safety are concerned. That is a Mars shot to me.”
How important is this study with Hardt Hyperloop for Schiphol?
“Extremely important. This is not a project that we are doing because it’s sexy or fancy. Our ambition is to become the most sustainable airport in the world. That also means that we are not per se in favor of even more flights to London or Brussels, to give an example. You see that more and more people are covering short distances via means of transport other than airplanes. The hyperloop is green, clean, and ultra-fast. In theory, you could be in Brussels or Frankfurt in just one hour. The demand for aviation and travel will always be around. We are just looking at different ways to meet that demand.”
Is it also essential that Schiphol is invested in this study with Hyperloop?
“It is essential that CO2 emissions drop down to zero. As Schiphol, we absolutely embrace that goal. Aviation must become more sustainable. This is the only viable future that we see. We are firm believers in a mix of various means of transport. We simply cannot afford not to do any research into this. It may well be the case that you’ll soon have a mix of an electric plane for short distances and the hyperloop. That preliminary study already shows that hyperloop can take over a proportion of short-haul passengers.”
What do you think the chances are that the Hyperloop will actually materialize?
“We are real optimists at Schiphol Airport. The glass is half full as far as we’re concerned. I’m not saying it won’t be a challenge. If the various parties that you need are all on board and up to the task, there’s a very good chance that it will succeed. There is widespread enthusiasm for it. From the sector, from logistics partners to industry partners and governments. That’s why I think the chances of success are substantially high.”
What impact is COVID-19 having on your innovation policy?
“As you know, it’s very quiet at Schiphol at the moment. But the companies are still there, of course. Needless to say, Schiphol is in the process of critically examining projects and investments across the board. But as an innovation team, we are more likely to look at whether we can speed up certain projects than terminate them. One example is sustainable taxiing. Because the airport is quieter, we are now able to carry out tests during the day. We wanted to do that at night at first. All of a sudden, we can now do these during the daytime. We also recently carried out an experiment with drones, a tricky topic in aviation. Because we currently have a quiet airport, we were able to set up a pilot where these drones could inspect aircraft and runways. People had been doing that up until now. We want to explore what advantages drones could have and are busy evaluating the results right now. We wouldn’t have been able to do that if the airport hadn’t been so quiet. However crippling the situation may be, at Schiphol we have been looking into how we can utilize the circumstances to speed up innovation.”
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