Each month, the Connected Aviation Today team identifies an executive in the industry that is making significant strides or that can share an interesting perspective on the aviation industry. For this latest Executive Spotlight, we sat down with Paul Puopolo, Executive Vice President of Innovation at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). With innovation at the core of Puopolo’s, career path and current role in aviation, he shares a unique perspective on how his approach enabled greater flexibility after the global pandemic.
Puopolo explained that for the leadership at DFW International Airport, it wasn’t innovation for the sake of innovating. Instead, Puopolo was hired in 2018 to build innovation into the very fabric of the DFW culture and approach to business. “There was a desire to standardize the innovation function and to be really clear on what it means. It’s about process and communication,” he said. To standardize the approach, Puopolo looks at innovation with two main objectives. The first is to take new products and services to market or operationalize them. The second is to create an innovative culture. “My job is to be accountable for how we execute innovation as a function at the airport, that includes the value it brings to the organization and the process we use, and then create a mindset of innovation throughout the organization,” he stated.
Puopolo started his career as a pilot and active-duty officer in the U.S. Navy, where he retired after 22 years of service. He built his next career by creating and leading corporate innovation teams within the financial and healthcare industries, often looking at how innovation and emerging technologies could enable growth and improve the consumer experience. When an opportunity within the airport industry opened up to not only work in an operational environment, but also build an innovation program from the ground up, Puopolo couldn’t resist. “I have always been a corporate innovator – or intrapreneur – and have enjoyed building teams and innovation functions in large, traditional organizations,” he told us.
With that opportunity, he has built a strategic vision for innovation at DFW that focuses on transforming travel for the future. “When we look at innovation, it’s easy to want to innovate across all things but you have to have a focus,” he said. For DFW, this focus is in five main areas: safe and secure, frictionless travel, data-driven decision marketing, efficient mobility, and new business ventures. Therefore, when a global pandemic hit the industry hard, DFW Airport was already investing in technologies that would improve safety and enable a contactless passenger journey.
“We’ve all felt the impact of COVID, but our innovation portfolio approach allows us to be more nimble. We are able to quickly shift our attention to solutions that would impact us in the short term,” Puopolo explained. One of these shifts was to move resources from unmanned vehicles to invest more in biometrics. “This was already a core focus, and we were able to accelerate touchless technology to improve the customer experience. So, we doubled down and pushed harder on biometrics and self-service.” In addition, Puopolo’s team assessed temperature testing technology and worked with the Customer Experience team to prioritize cleaning and sanitation technologies. “Because our innovation portfolio includes both short and long-term value, the leadership team didn’t have to shut down innovation. We refocused our efforts to meet the demands that the business units were facing.”
As airports look to the future and they re-emerge from the past 17 months, Puopolo reflected and noted that there is no better time for positive change in the industry. “The pace of change will never be slower than it is today and that provides limitless opportunities for the aviation industry,” he said. In a time where technology is so interwoven into everyday lives, Puopolo believes now is the moment for greater airport digital transformation and bridging technology with services. “We are in the fourth industrial revolution and no company is immune to that change. Even the travel industry.”
The opportunity that Puopolo sees ahead is to meet the passengers’ demands for connectivity, speed, personalization, and relevance in this fast-changing ecosystem. “We need to create value and a sense of urgency in a world that is moving from a transactional era of travel to an experiential one. This industry has so many opportunities to leverage technology to create resiliency – to create efficiencies, address resource constraints, build new revenue streams, and improve the customer’s experience. We need to push ourselves to do so,” he concluded.