Q&A: BAA’s IT blueprint for the future

28 February 2012 (Last Updated February 28th, 2012 18:30)

After a period of headline-hitting events and heavy criticism, BAA is about to buck the negative trend. Future Airport talks to CIO Philip Langsdale about the role of technology in BAA’s blueprint for the modern airport.

Q&A: BAA’s IT blueprint for the future

BAA has gone through one of its most tumultuous periods in the past few years, with several high-profile events making headlines across the UK. One of the biggest was the UK Competition Commission's decision to force the operator to sell three of its UK airports over fears that it had a monopoly of the domestic market. This culminated in the sale of Gatwick to
Global Infrastructure Partners in December 2009 for £1.5bn.

But the problems for BAA didn't end there. It also received heavy criticism shortly after the opening of Heathrow's terminal 5, which was marred by problems with its state-of-the- art baggage handling system and heavy disruption caused by last winter's snowfall, which led to accusations of under-investment in snow and ice-clearing equipment.

CIO Philip Langsdale believes that the company has come through the turbulence and can now concentrate on improving its airports and expanding internationally, which has already begun in earnest in the US with retail contracts at Boston Logan International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, and a management contract at Indianapolis International Airport.

Future Airport: As CIO, what is your approach to providing the best possible experience for your customers?

Philip Langsdale: You work very different operating models. Heathrow is a complex hub airport and it's one of the biggest airports in the world. That brings complications in terms of business process and very different opportunities to use technology that at other airports are more point-to-point and, therefore, much more focused on being low-cost, resilient and effective operations. So, there are two very different operating models, which have different demands and opportunities for technology.

"People are talking about the cloud as being the great big thing. I think it's almost part of the commoditisation of IT and is pretty ubiquitous."

We're very fixed on how we improve our customer experience as passengers travel through the airport, and that includes everything, from getting better information about what's happening in the airport, to reducing queuing and waiting times. This requires concentration on better management and planning of queues and workloads, making sure that we have the right resources in the right place, and that we respond well to disruption.

A major focus is making Heathrow more resilient to external shocks such as snow, but other things can happen; for example, flow-rate restrictions put on the airspace by air traffic control due to storms. This immediately causes congestion in the airport and we have to respond to that very quickly.

What are the challenges of outsourcing and cloud computing in terms of managing an international organisation?

The main challenge right now is that we're in the throes of a transition to Capgemini. That's a big change in many ways, making sure that it works out well and that we have a mutually constructive relationship with Capgemini. We're in this for the long haul, so we have to change our behaviour to be more mutual and supportive.

I've got the tactical challenge of delivering as many of David Begg's winter recommendations before it snows again; we have about 40 days of weather-related challenges a year, and the government has agreed that we can look at improving operating procedures in those times to help improve flow rates in the airport. Developing a stronger IT capability that leads and nudges the business into thinking about how we use technology more comprehensively is an important challenge, and that requires getting people who have that skill and competence and credibility.

Concerning cloud, we're seeing a change in the supply side of IT, which is very fundamental, and that's one of the reasons why we're outsourcing because you'll never get the economies of scale and scope, nor the maturity of business processes as an in-house IT function if doing some of these things yourself. The straightforward economics of the IT industry says 'use cloud; use these things when you can'. People are talking about the cloud as being the great big thing. It's part of the commoditisation of IT and is ubiquitous.

How prepared are you now compared with last year as the worst of winter weather looms?

We had a review of winter resilience, which Begg led in the first quarter, and I implemented 14 recommendations. We're doing as much as possible that's outlined in Begg's winter resilience report. Some of it will take longer than a few months to carry out, but we've acquired a lot more equipment and we have a very detailed tactical snow plan that we can use to drill and test, and make sure it works well.

" I’ve got the tactical challenge of delivering as many of David Begg’s winter recommendations before it snows again."

One of the real challenges of Heathrow is that it works well when everybody cooperates, so we've spent a lot of time with airlines and air traffic control to make sure our plans are well-rehearsed and well-engaged. We're putting in a new control centre that will enable us to track the status of the airport - a very big IT-enabled project.

We're focusing on what we do when there is a lot of congestion in the airport, and how we and the airline best support the quest for information and the people who are delayed. There's a lot of work going on.

What are the main tests of the CIO to nurture good citizenship in the organisation?

We've changed the shape of the IT function here enormously. When I joined three years ago, there were nearly 800 people in IT and now we're just over 100. That's the result of having an absolute focus on reducing costs and improving service quality.

People often think that to improve quality you have to increase costs. But our core aim at Heathrow is to improve quality and reduce costs, and I think we've done that well. We've been doing that organically, then two years ago, we started looking at outsourcing -about whether we should outsource.

We decided in December last year to outsource the service and most of the project delivery capability to Capgemini. That means you have a very different capability in the IT function, which is more focused on how you engage with the business and the stakeholders; how you lead them into understanding IT capability; how you deliver complex projects well; and how to do that in a way that safeguards the future. Those are new skills we're developing in IT and that requires a lot of attention on people development and enhancing their skills. We're also recruiting and developing people organically.

How much of the passenger automation process is driven by BAA and how much by airlines?

It has to be driven by both; they have to work together because of what we do as an airport authority, working closely with airports. From an IT point of view, we're lucky because we have active engagement with the CIOs of the big Heathrow-based airlines and the airport operating committee. We look at those areas through the IT stakeholder board, which I chair and which meets to look at how we should be developing IT to support simpler processes.

How important is interoperability between the airport and airline systems? What challenges does this represent?

It's reasonably well-defined. There are de-facto standards that you operate in terms of the transfer of passenger and bag information, and the linkages between the airline's departure control systems and ours. It has to work because the airlines and the airports interoperate so actively. It's not a big worry.

As new terminals are added and others renovated, what are the challenges when integrating a new IT infrastructure with legacy systems still in place in older parts of the airport?

"Our core aim at Heathrow is to improve quality and reduce costs, and I think we’ve done that well."

It's a big challenge. With terminal 2, which will open in 2013, we've had to freeze the design so construction can progress with the schedule. So, inevitably you're designing something that has to integrate with what's current and state of the art, while having flexibility with what we know will be a very different IT world.

The terminal has to cope with 40 years of life after that, so you tend to put in as much flexibility and capacity in the network to cope with what you don't know. You also have to be quite cautious because you don't want experimentation and too much innovation when you're opening a new terminal.

Crystal-ball gazing? As an organisation, we haven't been very strong at that. We've just taken on a new CTO [Simon Fell] who will pick up responsibility for looking at technology innovation and really help to answer that question. It's a scenario in which historically we've concentrated on running the infrastructure and the IT, and I think we need to move forward to get on the front foot in some of those areas. And because of our regulatory environment, we have to produce a five-year plan for the next quinquennium. Doing that will be helpful for us to point at some of those issues, such as how we safeguard the future while building for the present.

Where do you see Heathrow in five years' time?

Our focus is making Heathrow a better place for passengers to travel through because by doing that, you make passengers want to travel through Heathrow. That also generates more volume for the airlines, making it a more attractive place for them. Making it a better place for passengers means looking at the amount of time people spend in the airport and making that time more effective and more productive, and managing to minimise queues and disruption.