Top five takeaways from the BBC's Back in the Skies

I must admit I've become a little obsessed by the BBC's recent documentary series The Airport: Back in the Skies. The show has created a perfect time capsule of Heathrow airport and the problems faced as it attempts to recover from the recent global pandemic.

Five episodes, covering the period October 2021 to February 2022, expose challenges including an ever-changing set of international regulations, reopening mothballed terminals and endless staff shortages.

Jeremy Spake on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport.

The show is fronted by 90s TV legend and all-round good egg Jeremy Spake. Thanks to his good nature, people skills, and expertise, Jeremy commanded audience's attention while working as a ground services manager on another BBC travel documentary. Here he returns to share his wisdom and guide viewers through the myriad of struggles and misery that constitutes modern air travel.

With all episodes now aired, here are the top five things that I enjoyed from the show.

Simulation is everywhere

Cameras took viewers inside of NATS' incredible simulation room where Jeremy was tasked with managing a number of virtual aeroplanes using NATS ACE simulator. There aren't too many videos around showing this system in action so it was fabulous to see one of the ways the industry is addressing skills fade brought on by the pandemic.

Later in the series we were invited to look at how team members are using custom in-house DesignAir software to modernise UK airspace. This involves modelling a new air route to attempt to alleviate congestion and reduce carbon emissions.

Finding a sustainable path

Air travel is in a whole heap of trouble when it comes to meeting climate goals by 2050. In this show we got to some of the steps being taken right now. Aer Lingus showed off their new Airbus A321neo aircraft as it handles the hectic Dublin-Heathrow route. With 20% more fuel-efficiency than existing aircraft and 50% less engine noise it's a small start.

One detail I found particularly interesting was the executive chef in charge of creating meals for Virgin Atlantic listing their top three priorities: quality, flavour, and sustainability. It is going to take an almighty effort to get aviation to reach net-zero, and details like ensuring millions of meals served by airlines every year are sourced responsibly are vitally important.

When opportunity knocks

A JetBlue aircraft in blue skies.

It is nice to see people and companies thriving under pressure. Although the global situation has seen many businesses go under, a number have risen to the challenge and are making the best of the situation. Maja Gedosev, general manager for European operations at JetBlue, took time out to explain how the transatlantic carrier turned the situation to their advantage by grabbing temporary vacant take-off and landing slots to grow their business.

Elsewhere CEO of Ethiopian Airlines Tewolde GebreMariam (recorded prior to his retirement), discussed how his team pivoted from transporting passengers to shifting freight. In total 27 planes were converted, and cargo now accounts for half of Ethiopian's revenue. Tewolde commented that their success was down to running the company like a small corner-shop.

Recovering capacity

In one perfect moment, Jeremy turns to the camera and says, "What's going to be really challenging is how the airport copes with a sudden spike in passenger numbers." Spoiler alert, it would not cope and it did not cope.

As I write this, airports in the UK and around the world are in total disarray. Hundreds of flights cancelled every day, passengers left stranded, and queues literally out the front door are just a few of the issues. It was obvious to those on the ground back in October that this would happen, and yet little was done. Filmed back in February, Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye noted that "growth will be the biggest challenge and we need to hire between 10-20,000 people over the next six months."

People power

The main takeaway from this show is that ultimately it is people that make an airport work.

I have so far picked four highlights, but the thing that ties all of them together is the people. Heathrow is a vast enterprise and the show really brought across how every individual is a crucial piece in the bigger jigsaw. Whether it is passenger services leader Sharon ensuring enough trolleys are available, or Ellen setting up a new Terminal 2 restaurant, personnel make an airport work. Or as Jeremy eloquently put it:

"One airplane looks very much like another, and it only works when you add the human factor. That makes the difference."

This has been an educational show. If you haven't already, catch the series on iPlayer. Heathrow is far from out of the woods; with at least another 18 months of travel chaos predicted there is surely enough material for a second series. Happy days.