IT helps BA survive a decade of challenges

The pressures on IT departments mean doing even more with even less, says BA CIO Paul Coby

The pressures on IT departments have reached a point where they not only have to do even more with less, they deliver value for the business and delight their customers at the same time, says Paul Coby, British Airways chief information officer.

Speaking to CIOs at Computer Weekly's 500 club, Coby said that although the cost of IT has dropped dramatically over the past 10 years, IT departments are under more pressure than ever.

BA has had to reign in its IT costs, cut projects, including a major ERP implementation, and set up a star chamber to scrutinise the business benefits of IT projects following heavy losses this year.

"This past financial year as been the toughest in a tough decade for BA. We have had 9/11, 7/7, the Gate Gormet dispute, Terminal 5, fuel price rises, swine flu, pensions deficits, a bomber, the cabin crew strike and volcanic travel chaos," he said.

The IT department played a key role in helping BA manage the disruption caused by the cabin crew strikes and the volcanic ash cloud, Coby said.


The department introduced disruption-handling services to the web site. That enabled passengers to rebook a flight or claim a refund if their flight was cancelled. "We could not have got through it without automating," said Coby.

IT also stepped in to set up emergency contact centres for stranded passengers. And about 100 IT staff, including Coby's personal assistant, volunteered to stand in as cabin crew during the strikes.

Maintaining relationships with the rest of the business is important, said Coby, particularly in the downturn.

The department used to run annual fairs to showcase th IT to the rest of the business. That has fallen by the wayside under the current economic pressure.

But BA continues to employ dedicated IT professionals to liaise and communicate with the rest of the business. And it is working with PA Consulting on a project to improve communication further.

"We have technology and service partners. Their job is to answer the business on technology, manage problems, and to advise us what the business needs," said Coby.

"Gettting people to think about what the business needs. It's something we need to do better. We are spending a lot of time thinking about that," he said.

Reduced budget

Coby has helped BA reduced its IT budget from £230m to £100m through a combination of outsourcing, virtualisation, introducing agile programming, and using IT more effectively.

"We used to have separate systems on separate servers. We have crunched everything together. We have tried to standardise platforms. We have virtualised and instead of running servers on 20% or 30% we a running them on 50% or 60%," he said

It has introduced targets for completing projects more quickly. A quarter of projects are completed in 90 days, 50% in 180 days and 75% in 270 days.

Where possible BA has tried to move early into new technologies, including voice over IP and software as a service. And it has begun a programme to componentise its software, so that it can be re-used in other projects, Coby told the meeting.

The company has used outsourcing contract with Amadeus, which runs BA's core systems to free up cash to develop

"I always tell the guys in the datacentre they are the front line of the business. They are checking in 50% of people online or supporting people caught in the ash cloud or the strike," he said.

BA was the first to offer calendar-based bookings of flights over its web site eight years ago

"Calendar selling was a game-changer in the airline industry. Up until then you could not see what the different flights were on a date. We were expecting six months, but we got two to three years over our competitors. Now everyone has it. But in terms of internet booking engines, why would you want to have one in-house," he said.

"There are quite a lot of questions to ask. Am I pursuing the service in the right way, or have things moved on? Can we move that service outside? There are a lot of things on the web in 2005 that are generic. We have to think how to move those out, and how to develop added value services."

The key priorities for the next decade will be cloud computing, consolidation, convergence, and consumerisation, said Coby.

The next generation of Aircraft will have parts tagged with RFID chips which will record their maintenance history. This could help the airline industry make major savings.

"Hypothetically, you know an A380 is flying between Sydney and Singapore in 2012. You know a part is due to be replaced. You have 500 passengers you need to plan for, you have to think what you do with the crew. With that knowledge you can think ahead of the game. When they get to Singapore there will be a reserve flight waiting for the passengers," he said. "In the past we just dealt with it when it happened."

Web site roadmap

  • 2002 BA introduced first "calendar selling" of flights
  • 2004 Ability to change bookings added to web site
  • 2006 On-line check-in
  • 2009 More advanced functions added
  • 2010 Online disruption handling added

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