London Heathrow, one of the most profitable international airports in the world, is simply bursting at the seams. Terminals 1, 2 and 3 were built before 1980 to handle 45 million passengers a year, yet on average 68 million fly through, while Terminal 4 is functioning at four times the capacity it was designed for.

So it’s not surprising that BAA has come under fire, with commentators saying that delays at Heathrow damage London’s status as a major financial centre. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has blamed Heathrow chiefs for the airport’s poor services. “Certainly Heathrow does shame London,” he said. “It is typical of the English short-termism, lack of planning, lack of investment.”

City minister, Kitty Ussher, has also issued a broadside at Heathrow, warning that London’s status as a leading financial centre is at threat because of the unhappiness executives feel at the “Heathrow hassle”.

Nick Gaines, director of business critical systems and IT at Heathrow’s owner the British Airports Authority (BAA), concedes that the biggest problem for those passing through Heathrow’s existing terminals has been overcrowding. “There is an enormous scale of congestion for Heathrow today. Security threats, fog and snow, there is an event every month, or every week. The infrastructure is old and under immense pressure. Ultimately, issues are going to occur,” he says.

But the airport’s fifth terminal building T5, due to open in March, should go some way to take the strain. BA has transformed its IT systems and cut operational costs in preparation, reveals CIO Paul Coby during a tour of the unfinished facility. The state-of-the-art terminal has cost BA and BAA £4.3bn to build and outfit. BA says around £75m of these costs are for technology, while BAA invested a further £175m in IT systems, including a sophisticated baggage handling system.

In addition to the main terminal building, T5 also consists of two satellite buildings (the second of which will be completed by 2011) that will be linked by an underground transit train. The expansion comprises 60 aircraft stands, a new air traffic control tower, the diversion of two rivers and over 13km of bored tunnel, including extensions to the Heathrow Express and Piccadilly Line services.

These improved services will mostly benefit the business traveller, as they will make up the majority of passengers at T5. BAA and BA pledge that T5 has been designed with the end goal of improving the travel experience and provide something “slick and attractive” for air passengers.

Technology plays a key role in helping BA to meet this goal, and is part of the very fabric of the customer experience, as Gaines explains.

“Technology is everywhere you look. It is ubiquitous, in every part – from heating, cooling, drainage, power distribution, baggage handling, to airplane loading and unloading – and it’s all monitored through a single network infrastructure. Technology determines the passenger experience at every level,” he says.

The project is a complex one. T5 will involve 180 IT suppliers and run 163 IT systems, 546 interfaces, more than 9,000 connected devices, 2,100 PCs and “enough cable to lay to Istanbul and back”. It will contain 175 lifts, 131 escalators and 18km of conveyor belts for baggage handling. Coby says that even the construction of T5 involves: “creating a small town with a full telecommunications network for the construction workers, merely to enable the terminal to be built.”

Coby says this mega-investment is necessary for the future of Heathrow, to live up to its status as a global hub. “The UK can’t act as a global hub unless we have a world-class airport. Terminal 5 and our investment in Heathrow Airport is absolutely a key element in the [success of] the UK economy and positioning the UK as this global hub. It’s also the global hub for BA and is fundamental to our customer service and our future.”

He adds: “T5 encapsulates how a 21st century information management department plays a part in the business. We’ve used it as a catalyst for business operations.”

“T5 is a technology programme that spreads across BAA,” echoes Gaines. The CCTV system, for example, was trialled at London Stansted – another BAA airport – and Heathrow’s Terminal 1.

One of the biggest IT challenges, according to Gaines, has been “safeguarding for the future” by ensuring the technology that is used will be appropriate for many years to come, and there is “space to keep technology options open”. This includes the terminal’s use of networking infrastructure, which also needs to hook up to existing legacy systems in other terminals – sometimes 30 years old.

“Whatever we build in T5 has to be integrated into the main system,” says Gaines. To avoid the risk of building obsolete systems, the project has also employed a ‘last responsible moment’ approach to make sure IT decisions take into account all possible technologies.

Almost every new airport has opened late, cost more and had major operational issues, and, according to Gaines, “system integration problems” are often blamed. “This will not be the case for T5. BAA and BA plan working together for system integration over two years, we’ve been focused on bringing systems together. Integration is not just plugging technology together; it’s about people, processes and systems working together.”

Coby explains the integration challenge faced by BA. To reflect the ambitious goal of creating a world-class global hub, BA also strives to transform its information management processes. “In the past, people have focused on IT and thought about proposition and processes only at the end of a project,” he says. “At BA, we have tried to think, ‘What’s this building for? What are we trying to do?’ We have thought about processes and how they affect people and then designed the use of IT around that.”

Coby describes T5 as the “biggest challenge and biggest opportunity” to improved operations.

With this in mind, Coby details BA’s lean methodology, which is dubbed ‘Lean: Fit for Five’ internally. Originally designed for the automotive industry, the lean model is popular in manufacturing circles as a process management philosophy that focuses on standardising processes in order to reduce costs and time waste and improve efficiency. T5, according to Coby, has many qualities that are similar to a factory, in that it aims to eliminate waste, simplify and streamline processes, create flow and create a culture of continuous improvement.

“Lean is about changing work culture and continuous improvement,” says Coby. “It is not a quick fix.”

BA uses the lean model to assist the carrier to reduce overheads and manage the enormous task of handling business change and the massive integration challenge involved in this large-scale project. Coby explains that lean involves using simple, repeatable processes and only adopting complex technology when there is no alternative.

The lean model has enabled the airline carrier to reduce operational costs, however BA executives could not quantify these savings. One spokesperson said: “The main focus of lean has been to deliver improved efficiency and improve operations on the whole. As such, through using lean to deliver improved IT efficiency, we get an improved operation, which results in cost saving across the entire operation.”

An example of lean philosophy at work is to co-ordinate schedules and squeeze costs by, for instance, not having to ferry passengers between terminals.

BA is preparing to reach its ultimate destination – to use technology to ensure that passengers arrive at the airport ready to fly, cutting queues and simplifying travel. The airline has set ambitious IT targets, and anticipates that 80 per cent of travellers will check in online, using the airline’s website, or use a self-service kiosk, when flying from T5 in the future.

The BA website already incorporates SOA systems, which should allow easier integration with other agencies such as Transport for London and the Highways Agency. Glenn Morgan, head of BA’s information management programme says the airline could then advise passengers of what is happening on the roads or the Tube as they are making their way to the airport. Morgan gives the possible example that if a taxi is stuck in traffic, the airline could book the passenger onto a later flight, and then send a text message to the passenger’s mobile device.

Technology also drives improvements to security processes at T5. For instance, all domestic passengers will have their fingerprints taken and face scanned as a matter of routine, as part of the security check prior to take off. And all taxis picking up and dropping off passengers will be required to have an RFID tag fitted so that their movements can be tracked, while embedded sensors underneath the roads will provide additional monitoring. Taxis that serve T5 will be parked at an external location, and automatically called to the terminal when they are required, using wireless communication services and embedded sensors in the road that detect traffic flow.

Lean methodologies, supported by technologies, will help the airline to improve quality, cost, and time, as BA keeps an open mind about the future in terms of security requirements and technological advances, future proofing their investments wherever possible.

Says Gaines: “T5 is opening up Heathrow to a new passenger-oriented experience.”

T5 quick facts

BA will be the main occupant of Heathrow Terminal 5, which will handle up to 35 million passengers a year when it opens in March 2008.

T5 is being constructed in two phases. The main terminal and first satellite building will be completed by March 2008, while phase two will involve the construction of the second satellite building.

BAA claims T5 will host one of the world’s most sophisticated baggage handling systems, with more than 18km of conveyor belt. More than 400,000 hours of software engineering has gone into developing the complex baggage handling system, which can process up to 12,000 bags per hour.

BA is also using customer self-service technology to reduce operating costs. It intends to move to 100 per cent e-ticketing, 100 per cent barcode tickets, 80 per cent self-service check-in and 50 per cent online sales.