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CIO interview: Abhilash Chacko, head of IT commercial, Gatwick Airport

Airport’s head of IT commercial seeks to abandon old ways of thinking and collaborate with airlines to use technology to improve the passenger experience

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At Gatwick Airport, technology is at the forefront of offering a better experience to passengers, airlines and everyone else at the airport.

Abhilash Chacko, head of IT commercial at Gatwick, tells Computer Weekly that with a tech-savvy exec team, any good idea will be taken forward fairly quickly.

Chacko’s role is to innovate for the airport’s customers, including airlines, airport retailers, restaurants and hotels, who are all vying for passengers’ attention.

Historically, there has always been a debate around “who owns the relationship with the passenger”, he says.  

“A passenger is not coming to the airport to have an airport tour – they are coming because they bought a ticket and they are going somewhere. They just happen to use an airport to get to that place,” says Chacko.  

“Airports have difficulty in acknowledging that, and sometimes they compete for the attention of the customer and this can cause a bit of a conflict between the airport and the airline.”

Gatwick is taking steps to avoid that, however. The airport has begun feeding airport information to airlines’ smartphone apps, in a bid to give passengers easier and more personalised journeys through the airport.

This is beneficial for all parties involved, says Chacko.

“You avoid competition or conflict with the airlines, and the other thing is you have easy access to a large segment of passengers because they typically use the airline app,” he says. “So you automatically get access to the airline passengers and can customise or personalise your offer to that specific passenger.”

Pleasant experience

The end game, he says, is to make sure passengers have a pleasant experience – and it doesn’t matter how they get their information.

“There are tendencies in some airports to make the information and services available from the airport exclusive to the airport channel,” says Chacko.

“By definition, that means you are excluding a large number of people from getting all of the services available. My view is that we should make our technology and other types of service available to any passenger who is travelling through the airport.”

If the passenger wants to look at the big screens in the departure hall, they are welcome to, he says, but if they choose to use a smartphone app, whether it’s an airline or an airport app, the information should be the same.

“Instead of the passenger staring at the fixed flight information display screen to see what the gate number is to board their flight, they can actually enjoy a drink in the pub and will be notified at the appropriate time that they should make their way to the gate,” says Chacko.

So far, EasyJet is the only airline app to go live with airport information, giving passengers information about gate numbers and baggage belts, for example. Gatwick is currently in talks with a number of other airlines to make such information available through their apps, too.

Gatwick has already invested in an integration platform, based on Microsoft Azure, to make airport operations more efficient, and using the same platform to share airport information is simply a matter of “leveraging the investment we already have and extend it for the passenger experience”, says Chacko.

He says it would never have been viable to make that investment simply to make baggage belt and gate information available on its own, but using what is already there, the extra investment needed to make it available for passengers is very small.

A forum for ideas

Easyjet pays a small monthly fee to get real-time data, and the reasoning for this charging is not just about recovering the incremental cost, says Chacko, but also to validate the benefit for customers.

“We operate based on a commercial model, which means we invest and innovate for our customers,” he says. “However, we don’t just give it for free, because the danger then is that we might invest in the wrong place.

“We come up with a service fee which is reflective of the cost we are incurring and if the customer is not willing to pay that service fee, we don’t pursue or progress with that idea at all. The validation of an idea or innovative solution is when our partners want it.”

Every two months or so, Gatwick runs an IT customer forum, to which it invites all ground handlers and businesses associated with the airport and “explore avenues of collaboration”.

“We want to avoid spending or investing in technology for the sake of technology”

Abhilash Chacko, Gatwick Airport

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“We want to avoid spending or investing in technology for the sake of technology,” says Chacko. “The validation of ideas through a customer forum is working out brilliantly, because we take the idea through a multi-stage process, which includes voting by the customers. If it doesn’t get enough votes, we won’t take it forward.”

The next project Chacko is working on is making check-in times available on the airlines’ mobile apps. This means that a passenger can instantly check how long they will have to wait to check in for their flight.

Chacko says passengers can often get overwhelmed or worried that they are going to miss their flight if they see a lot of people queuing in the check-in area. In reality, the flow rate is quite high, often with 15 or 20 check-in desks open, and it goes much more quickly than it may look at first glance.

“Through the system, we can reassure them,” he says.

Queue measurement

Gatwick’s queue measurement system uses sensors with cameras mounted in the ceiling. The sensors measure the height and shape of the objects below and can detect people with almost 100% accuracy, says Chacko.

The system has been installed for the Easyjet and Norwegian Airlines check-in zones so far, and is being extended to share the information through the airlines’ apps.

“We have already trialled it with Easyjet and it works, but we need to do more work on the external publishing of the information,” he says.

“The check-in queue measurement system brings tremendous amounts of transparency between the airlines and the ground handlers,” he says, adding that the airlines have contracts with the ground handlers based on performance and KPI.

“Traditionally, one difficulty between airlines and ground handlers is that they don’t have a transparent measurement relating to queue performance and this solution has solved that problem.”

In the future, says Chacko, similar technology can be used to drive the performance and behaviours of the airlines and ground handlers, based on incentives attached to queue performance.

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