With such a complex organisation as the nation's national airport, BAA CIO Philip Langsdale has a potentially poisoned chalice to deal with in his attempts to improve its IT.
In terms of IT planning, the company takes the long view by operating on five-yearly cycles. Langsdale is nearing the end of the current quinquennium, as they are known at BAA – the next one will start in 2013/14. Over the course of this current cycle, the company has completed a number of big projects at Heathrow, including the opening of Terminal 5 and an ongoing refurbishment of Terminal 2.
Another big project is the improvement of baggage handling at Heathrow, which typifies the colour of the initiatives over the last five years, which have been to simplify and improve the airport’s infrastructure. That should set it up for the next quinquennium, which will focus on integrating a number of applications so that the passenger experience can be further improved.
“We’ve managed to reduce baggage misconnect to about 13 in every 1000,” Langsdale reveals.
“I’m told it will be difficult to get it much below that, because there will always be flights where the bags haven’t been loaded and there’s nothing we can do about that at this end.”
This drive to implement systems and processes that have an impact on passengers’ experiences at the airport will be taken forward into the next five-year cycle in an initiative called Real-Time Heathrow.
Langsdale explains that this will focus on bringing together a number of stakeholders in the hub so that they can react to disruptions and alerts much more quickly and in a much more organised fashion, so that passengers’ progress through the airport is hampered as little as possible.
The stakeholders in this case include the airlines, air traffic controllers NATS and the UK Border Agency.
“We know when a flight takes off from its origin and when it will land at Heathrow. We know how many people are going to be on it, so we should be able to work with the airlines and the UK Border Agency to make sure we have the right resources to handle them when they arrive.”
If the road systems feeding traffic into the airport are clogged up, information could be fed to Heathrow staff so they knew there were going to be a lot of passengers arriving late for their flights and be able to pre-empt that rise in footfall volumes. Being able to micro-schedule the airport using better control systems will improve the customer experience in ways we can all easily imagine: faster queues and fewer flight delays.
Langsdale is sanguine about past upheavals such as the snowy weather lock-downs last winter, and admits that it’s situations like this that have driven this initiative along. It’s easy to see how better coordination among the players that use or support the airport could have helped at that time.
The technology strategy that will provide the platforms will be simple, so that it can be flexible enough to cope with the complexity of the business model. This simplicity is almost a mantra for Langsdale, who has decided to replace the aging Microsoft Windows NT and Oracle back office systems with a strictly vanilla Oracle platform.
The overall plan is to have as few variances from the factory default as possible: the previous platform had over 900 modifications; this time there are less than 20.
Any changes to the software have to be cleared by Langsdale himself and by BAA’s HR director, Fiona Rodford. This approach isn’t merely to make sure the implementation goes as smoothly as possible. It’s also to allow some of the ownership of the applications to be moved over to the business-line teams that will be using them.
“There is a lot of automatic self-service. A lot of governance ownership into the line – a lot of accountability for integrity of information into the line,” says Langsdale.
But will a zeal for simplicity lead to systems that can’t cope with exceptions? Langsdale thinks that the approach costs less at implementation and keeps the ongoing support bill down too. It may be that BAA’s business processes will have to adapt to the system, where it’s sensible to do so.
“Simplicity equals stability. Other organisations end up over-complicating their IT and their business processes and increase costs, and why would you do that?” Langsdale asks.
The organisation has ditched Lotus Notes and migrated to Outlook 2010 and Windows 7. It is also in the process of developing some niche applications, such as self-boarding and security queue monitoring and management, which is aimed at smoothing the flow of passenger traffic in and out of the aeroplanes.
To help him and his team concentrate on this, Langsdale has struck an outsourcing deal with Capgemini to run the IT services recently upgraded by BAA.
“We are definitely getting a better service at lower cost,” he says.
Capgemini will also work with BAA to support the Real-Time Heathrow change programme and help disaggregate the IT systems across the organisation so that it is easier to divest the smaller airports if necessary. Finally, the outsourcer will be expected to help BAA look for ways to generate revenue by offering services to other stakeholders, such as the 90 or so airlines that use Heathrow.