Interview: Paul Coby, CIO at British Airways, reveals how he is guiding the airline on a course of IT transformation, and how he has cut IT costs by 45% in the process
British Airways is undergoing a period of IT transformation under the guidance of chief information officer Paul Coby, as the airline works to meet the Terminal 5 opening deadline of March next year.
The airline faces the dual challenges of rolling out IT systems for Heathrow's new terminal, at the same time as improving the efficiency of IT systems to cope with shrinking budgets. So far, everything has gone to plan, said Coby in an interview with Computer Weekly.
Coby, who became CIO of BA in 2001, joined the firm at about the same time as the September 11 attacks. The attacks had huge financial consequences for international airlines. Since then, BA has shifted its focus considerably to take on the low cost airlines, and IT has played a large part in its strategy.
"I was in at the deep end," Coby said. "When I started, we went straight into crisis meetings trying to see if we could keep the airline going. But it meant we started doing a lot of things that we should have already been doing.
"The BA website overcame the challenge and is a good example of using technology to change the business. It put clear, good-value fares into the marketplace. We now have exciting plans for innovative use of Web 2.0 on the site."
The focus of the business has now become the customer, Coby said. To take on the low-cost carriers, BA needed to make it easy for customers to deal with the airline.
"The web is now acting as a direct link between us and the customer," he said. "IT is fundamental to the airport processes and background processes - it is all pervasive."
Passengers can check-in online and choose a seat using a map of the aircraft. There are self-service kiosks to allow passengers to check-in at the airport, and BA is working on projects to make the website accessible from a mobile phone.
The airline has also rolled out the Employee Self Service (ESS) system to improve efficiency internally. As a result, cabin crew rostering, pay slips and basic HR tasks have all gone online.
At the same time, BA has faced budgetary challenges. A £10m cut in operational IT costs from £152m to £142m in 2006, meant the IT department had to introduce efficiency measures wherever possible.
Coby said BA has managed to cut running costs by 45% in six years, while simultaneously increasing the amount invested on new technology by 66%.
The answer is standardisation, said Coby. "We used to have a lot of different technologies. When we got a new system we would get a new server and put it on."
The company has invested heavily in Linux, reduced variation in desktop technology, introduced cost-effective hardware such as blade servers, and streamlined and automated as many processes as possible.
"We have cut costs by standardising everything we do and chasing every penny. Plus, we have increased the amount we invest in technology that aids business change."
Coby is using service oriented architecture (SOA) to enable developers to reuse common services across the company. SOA also makes it possible to integrate IT systems across different technical environments, like Java and .net.
Tackling the UK skills shortage is another priority for Coby. A lack of skilled IT staff and willing graduates means the airline needs to compete for talent and focus on developing the employees it has.
"IT is a key factor in the economy. It matters terribly, and yet the number of people entering the industry is very low."
Employers need to provide entrants with a clear career ladder to climb, or the UK IT industry will dry up from the bottom, said Coby. To this end, BA has introduced an 18-month graduate recruitment scheme in an attempt to attract and keep future IT leaders.
Despite the challenges, Coby is confident. "One of my jobs is to explain IT, which can be seen as obscure. We have got to explain that behind all the peculiar acronyms, there have been some remarkable changes. I do think IT is becoming cool again."
How British Airways has coped with Terminal 5
"This is a once-in-a-life-time project - no one has built a Terminal 5 before. It is almost as big as a new airport," said Paul Coby CIO of British Airways.
Coby's answer has been to limit big system changes, and the 227 IT projects breathing life into the new terminal are upgrades of systems already present in terminals one to four. It is now in the final testing stages, and everything is on time so far.
Passengers will be pleased to hear a new baggage system forms a "core part" of the Terminal 5 design. There are 96 bag drops - as many as in terminals one to four combined. The system is built on .net and C# based handheld devices for baggage handlers, which use a web browser to connect to an Oracle database.
A message distribution service has been provided by SITA, an IT services provider for airlines, to control routing of messages from check-in and tracking systems. This should mean that bags are sufficiently monitored to ensure they get on the right flight.
Coby said, "We have updated the operational systems we use to run on our existing operations, adding capability and updating configurations."
Another set of systems have been designed specifically for Terminal 5. These include CCTV, access control systems and an integrated communication system that allows staff to contact managers by touching a screen. The systems are delivered by an integrated IP network.