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Neil Clark, CIO at the world’s busiest international airport, outlines the technology challenges — and strategic partnerships — that underpin the success of its new IT-driven Terminal 2.
Running IT at Heathrow might just be the world’s most unforgiving technology job. From 5am till after 11pm every day, flights take off and land from its two runways at every 45 seconds. More than 70 million passengers flow through the London airport’s five terminals each year, served by an integrated IT environment and a demanding set of IT stakeholders: 84 airlines and their maintenance crews; airport operations, handling agents and local air traffic control staff; police and border control teams; and hundreds of retailers and caterers.
As Europe’s busiest airport and the world’s largest for international passengers by volume, Heathrow runs at an astonishing 98% capacity — a fact that means its processes and technology have to function as robustly as they do efficiently.
So the rebuilding of Heathrow’s Terminal 2 from the ground up over the past five years has presented an unparalleled logistical challenge — and business opportunity — not only to leverage technology that redefines those efficiencies and enhances resilience, but also to enrich the customer experience and elevate Heathrow’s competitive position against other European hubs like Schiphol and Charles De Gaulle as well as its main London rivals of Gatwick, Luton and Stansted.
For Neil Clark, CIO of Heathrow Airport, the Terminal 2 project — which culminated in the June opening of the terminal — was always going to be technology-driven, but with an IT organization of just 100 it was also one that needed to count to a high degree on the collaboration and project execution of a handful of carefully chosen IT partners.
As Clark outlines: “In the context of any airport, Heathrow is effectively full. So technology has to be an enabler for greater efficiency in day-to-day operations and, more important, for finding ways to create greater resilience, to give us headroom so when there are issues we can recover from them quickly.”
Technology is also seen a game-changer in terms of customer experience. “From the day we started talking about Terminal 2 the discussion was about how technology would play a key part,” says Clark. “It presented the opportunity for a single integrated infrastructure delivering all kinds of new technology services that automate and enhance the passenger journey — from self check-in and bag drop to automatic security and self-boarding gates; from crowd flow management to free passenger WiFi everywhere.”
Those ambitions to forge a new model in airport resilience, efficiency and customer experience revolved around the early decision to make Terminal 2 the UK hub for one of the world’s largest airline groupings, Star Alliance.
“For any airline alliance, being co-located in close proximity is a critical success factor,” highlights Clark. “Star Alliance saw the opportunity to bring all of its members under one roof at Heathrow, to enable it to offer faster and more convenient connections to passengers and so drive revenue — a huge competitive advantage,” says Clark.
But the decision to offer what are arguably the world’s most advanced airport facilities to Star Alliance came with a major challenge — not least for Heathrow’s IT team and its partners. Despite enthusiasm for the all-new facility, Star Alliance’s grouping of 23 airlines (from Air Canada and United to Lufthansa and ANA), plus three other prospective residents (Aer Lingus, Virgin Atlantic Little Red and Germanwings), was simply too large to fit into Terminal 2 — at least not when employing conventional operating models. So in order to cope with the estimated 20 million passengers that would flow through the terminal each year, the Star and Heathrow teams had to come up with a radically different approach, and make it work.
Truly common check-in
“The way we achieved it was to think about a very different way to run the check-in process — to build a network infrastructure and consistent set of processes that all Star carriers could use,” says Clark. “A solution that would enable passengers to check in at any kiosk or desk, and for agents to handle passengers from any Star airline, in any order. In other words, much more efficient use of our facility and resources.”
As he highlights, the resulting solution — ‘truly common check-in’ — is the real innovation at Terminal 2, and something of a first in the airport sector. “That is the single biggest technology differentiator and way of working we’ve put into the terminal,” he says.
It is not just designed to make more efficient use of resources, but to be fast — with a target for the final bag drop process of 70 seconds. “That speed is really important because those transaction times ultimately determine the flow of passengers through the terminal,” says Clark.
Counting on partners
The check-in environment is just one example of how the Heathrow team worked with its IT partners to turn major challenges into positive outcomes. Indeed, Heathrow’s IT delivery model relies almost entirely on partners, says Clark, and the Terminal 2 project was no exception. But for that to work, he needed to establish a new set of ground rules for partner engagement.
“There are formal processes and structures to the management and governance of a large complex project like Terminal 2. But there is also a way of working that enables people to come together, to talk about issues they encounter, to find solutions and work collaboratively towards resolution. Because of the inter-dependency of every aspect of this project we couldn't simply manage each supplier within their scope of work. We needed to create an environment whereby all suppliers worked with a set of behaviors that got the job done.”
Behind that was the creation of a One IT Team that spanned both internal and partner IT. “We didn't make a distinction between the Heathrow IT team, the Fujitsu team, the Cap Gemini team, the Atkins team or any of the suppliers that we were working with here,” says Clark. “The aim was to create an environment in which we could have open and honest conversations about issues, so that people were in the right frame of mind to tackle those between themselves.”
Building on that success, Heathrow has since established a Partner Engagement Model that defines the kinds of behavior it expects from suppliers.
“We have everyone focused on the big picture — the business outcomes and what we are trying to achieve here,” says Clark. “So if a process isn’t working, we decide what we need to do collectively to achieve the outcome. Adopting this kind of mindset within the partnership was probably the single most important thing we did to ensure that we delivered what was asked of us.”
As the network integrator for the Terminal 2 project, global ICT company Fujitsu is a prime example, he explains. “The network infrastructure is the lifeblood of the terminal, so Fujitsu’s role was really important. It was at the heart of that partnership model because it was interacting with almost every one of the other partners. The behaviors Fujitsu displayed in working with other suppliers to find solutions to problems were exactly what we were after, and it role-modeled what we were trying to achieve here.”
Having demonstrated that best practice, Heathrow is currently working with Fujitsu on the airport’s technology strategy for the next five years. “We’re going to build the ways of working we saw with Terminal 2 into everything else we do,” says Clark.
New approaches were also evident in how Heathrow ensured the technology infrastructure would work without major incident when it went live under the glare of the media in June. With the T2 project effectively implemented across a vast construction site — and literally in the middle of an airport’s two runways the testing and implementation regime called for some fresh thinking.
As Clark explains: “One of the guiding principles of opening a new airport terminal is ‘only put in proven technology.’ Terminal openings around the world are notoriously difficult. The majority fail — and for two reasons: the underlying technology fails or the baggage system fails. And the failure of the baggage system is increasingly a technology issue, too.”
Clark, who like many of his colleagues worked on the build-up to the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 in 2008, was able to fully draw on that experience, when the integrated baggage system initially failed and various other aspects took several months to bed in.
“A lesson we learned from Terminal 5 was to take as much of the testing away from the construction site as possible. So we set up a ‘model terminal’ in a completely separate area of Heathrow — a massive test-bed with all of the technology that runs a terminal. It was a great way of providing an environment in which we could prove the technology and show airlines and other stakeholders how it was all going to work.
“One of the biggest challenges in any major construction program is building the IT within that hardhat environment because it is constantly changing,” he explains.
So a key objectives from the outset was to find ways to de-risk that testing process. “As well as the model terminal, we looked at every opportunity where we could build and test the technology away from the building site. We created a ‘first-of-type’ for every technology we planned to use, testing that offsite and then onsite elsewhere at Heathrow so we knew that it would work within the T2 environment. So, for example, we built and tested every one of our network routers offsite, shrink-wrapped them and brought them in, only commissioning them when the room was ready.” And that approach was applied right across the project. “All the technology that supports the airport operation — kiosks, check-in desks, automated security gates, boarding gates, flight information displays, CCTV cameras, wireless access points and building management systems.”
Testing was not the only tactic used to ensure success, as Clark outlines: “We took a really important business decision to open the terminal in a phased way. That again enabled us to de-risk.” For its opening on June 4, Heathrow moved in just 10% of Terminal 2’s operations, letting those bed down before progressively adding further airlines over the summer.
By early October, when one of the largest Star Alliance partners, Lufthansa, moved to the terminal, confidence in the new systems had built. “We’ve opened T2 absolutely without any disruption to the Heathrow operation — or negative publicity — and we’re now close to moving in the remainder of the airlines,” says Clark.
Having created the foundation of a unified network infrastructure that integrates the entire terminal's applications and devices, the team is now keen to explore how Heathrow can further exploit that environment. CCTV is one area of interest. “We’re actively looking at how can we use that CCTV infrastructure to enable dynamic crowd management,” says Clark. “For example, our check-in concourse CCTV might be used to analyze in real time where crowds are building up, alerting operations center teams and allowing them to take action.”
Heathrow is completing trials on self-service bag drop, “so the future could [involve] an almost totally automated process where human intervention is at a minimum,” says Clark. And at the other end of the journey through the airport, the company also plans to add biometric recognition to enable true self-boarding as soon as its airline partners can support this.
Another example of how the advanced infrastructure might be used involves the free WiFi provided to passengers. Heathrow is starting to trial location-based services within the terminal, sending passengers information such as directions to departure gate or retail offers to their mobile phones as they pass through the terminal.
As Clark observes: “Passenger behavior is changing. Almost everyone now expects to have access to real-time information on their phone. And we’ve now got the infrastructure to drive new kinds interactions and actively pursue the opportunities it enables.”
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