Meeting Philip Langsdale, it’s easy to forget you are with the man who controls IT for one of the busiest travel hubs in the world. He has an unflappable, cheerful nature and an informal manner. As we chat in the canteen at BAA’s Heathrow Airport, it’s difficult not to like him. In his company you feel like you are being treated as an equal.
BAA essentially has two business models, explains Langsdale, the authority’s CIO. On one side there is Heathrow Airport, which around 65 million passengers pass through every year. On the other are BAA’s airports at Stansted, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Southampton. It isn’t something Langsdale makes a great deal of, but Heathrow is his first and biggest priority when planning the IT strategy.
Passenger, and therefore customer, experience is the biggest driver for Langsdale’s IT priorities. Heathrow is in stiff competition with other European hubs for long-haul passenger traffic, he says, so customer experience has to be of the best.
Until recently all BAA’s airports had a unified IT architecture, which Langsdale admits has not really worked because of the mismatched scale of the airports. It has come under scrutiny for its near-monopoly over the UK’s airports and has already divested itself of Gatwick. BAA is contesting a Competition Commission ruling to sell two more, so it makes sense for Langsdale to tailor IT systems to each individual airport.
The business model is further complicated by the range of stakeholders that BAA operates with, which include global airlines — including BA and Virgin Atlantic at Heathrow — the regulator the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), retailers and of course the passengers. The largest revenues come from the airlines, who pay to land at the airports, and from the retailers, who rent lucrative franchises within the departure lounges. There is a fixed cap on what revenues BAA can bring in, so if it makes more from retailing, the airlines get a dividend.
“It’s a false assumption that the role of IT is supporting internal customers. It’s about delivering value to the stakeholders,” says Langsdale.
This is a yardstick that Langsdale uses whenever he is presented with conflicting requests on the part of the stakeholders, as will invariably happen when so many organisations work together. He gravitates to whichever solution provides the most value to the whole.
“It’s the part of the job that often provides the most challenge,” he admits.
Langsdale has adopted some quite formal processes with BAA’s stakeholders, alongside informal relationships that have developed over the years. His approach is one of transparency, which helps calm the waters and gets buy-in from them.
“It is extraordinarily unique for a business to sit down with its major customers and go through every business case for investment in a very transparent way with them. It’s an incredibly powerful process,” he explains.
When he was CIO of British Airways, Paul Coby said he knew more about BAA’s IT budget than he did of his own, in reference to this transparency process.