In this episode of One Quick Thing, Jodie Brinkerhoff discusses how her team at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport pivoted on projects during the pandemic, helped with long-term scenario planning, and more. Brinkerhoff is the Vice President of Innovation at the Texas airport. 

Three takeaways from the conversation follow.

The Three Phases of the Pandemic Response

When the pandemic hit the US, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport didn’t even have a work-from-home policy, Brinkerhoff says. So, the first part of responding to the crisis was very reactionary, and Brinkerhoff describes it as the “blocking and tackling” phase. 

“Once we got our footing, we shifted into this period that I refer to as ‘sharpening the focus,’” she explains. “That was where we got our hands on deck and said, ‘Okay, what are our roles? How do we ensure that we’re not overlapping, that we’re collaborating together in a way that takes advantage of the highest and best use of our team’s time and talent?’” 

The third and final phase of response focused on the long-term recovery: “How do we plan for the future? What are the ways that we can build-to-scale some of these tests… We began to realize these are going to be longer-term things, and…we have a responsibility to act differently coming out of this.”

Scenario Planning in a Pandemic

At the onset of the pandemic, Brinkerhoff’s team became accustomed to working on projects “in fits and starts” as they came up. Eventually, after figuring out solutions to earlier problems like sanitization and passenger safety protocol, the organization arrived at a place where traditional scenario planning was necessary. They began looking at the “what if scenarios.”

“What if the…industry just bounces right back? … What if there is an equilibrium where we just level out at a lower number of passengers for a period of time? … What happens if everything goes awry? What would we do as an organization?” She recalls. 

“Over the course of the last couple of months, we’ve been partnering with other departments to go through this very in-depth process where we looked at…the potential impacts on the 24 business units that we have, and in assessing those potential impacts, what are the things that we can do as an organization to counter? … How do we protect ourselves? How do we insulate ourselves? … How do we flex a little bit faster than you might expect a government organization to flex?”

Pivoting and Pumping the Brakes on a Project

Brinkerhoff’s nine-person innovation team spent about seven months working on creating an autonomous vehicle for the airport, with an intention of getting it up and running by the holidays in 2020. The pilot was taking place in a large, mostly vacant parking lot. However, when the pandemic hit and travel halted, rental cars were returned to the airport in large, unexpected volumes. The overflow of cars had to be parked in the lot where testing was taking place, and the autonomous vehicle project had to be suspended. 

“With our partners we were working with, we were able to basically save some of the data that we had and the learnings…” she says. “Now we’re working with them to determine where else can we put a vehicle. Or, can we pivot to a different type of vehicle with a vision of efficient mobility…which still remains really, really important to the airport? … Those are things we need to be thinking about today. Just because COVID hit doesn’t mean that that’s any further in the future. Our construction cycles and things like that still need to be informed by these strategies.”