CIO Interview: Michael Ibbitson, Gatwick Airport

Gatwick Airport is replacing in-house IT with cloud services in a multimillion-pound modernisation programme

Gatwick Airport is predicting huge savings as it stops providing employees with BlackBerry devices, and instead encourages staff to use their own smartphones and tablets.

The project is the latest move in an ambitious modernisation programme that will see Gatwick replace its traditional IT infrastructure with cloud-based technology.

The man behind the programme, CIO Michael Ibbitson [pictured], joined the airport only a year and a half ago, but he has already persuaded Gatwick’s board to radically rethink its approach to technology.

Ibbitson, who prepared for his new job by watching every episode of the BBC’s Inside Gatwick series, is a veteran of airport IT, having worked in airports in Abu Dhabi, Mumbai and Doha.

Gatwick’s board had some initial revelations when Ibbitson presented his modernisation strategy to the board, he says. But they changed their minds once they saw what the cloud could do.

“By the next board meeting every executive was using it for their board papers,” says Ibbitson. “They really got the idea and the concept.”

Cutting applications

Between now and the end of the decade, Gatwick plans to simplify its aging IT infrastructure by moving as many services as possible into the cloud.

Ibbitson aims to close two two of the airport’s three datacentres and cut the number of software applications the airport supports from hundreds down to tens."We have a hit list of 40 applications this year [that we want to eliminate] and we are working through that. We are just going to keep going at it,” he tells Computer Weekly.

The project will free up cash in the IT budget to spend on what Ibbitson says is the real priority: improving passengers’ experience.

Eliminating the need for just one new datacentre will free up £20m for projects that will have a direct benefit to passengers, he suggests.

 “A datacentre does not really benefit the passengers. It does not make their experience better. Its just some computers in a room,” he says.

Room for another runway

Just as importantly, moving to the cloud will allow Gatwick to ramp its IT requirements up and down, as business conditions change.

The airport is using a cloud-based service from US startup company, Box, to manage and store many of the documents it uses across the organisation.

The files that will be stored here include all of the documents and submissions for Gatwick’s second runway project.

If the second runway is approved, cloud services such as Box will allow Gatwick to scale up its operations quickly, says Ibbitson.

"We don’t have to buy extra computers and build another datacentre to do it. We can just increase the number of services we are taking from our cloud service providers,” he says.

The airline is working with a wide range of cloud services providers, including Amazon, Microsoft’s Azure, ServiceNow and Yammer.

Better passenger experience

Gatwick’s BYOD programme is a key part of its modernisation programme. Before it was introduced, just 400 airport staff were using company BlackBerry devices at work.

We used to have a queue at the IT department every Monday morning for every BlackBerry that was broken. Now we don't

Now some 1,600 are using their own iPhones, android phones and tablets to access airport information systems.

"That can only be good for passengers, because they have information at their fingertips now. They are more knowledgeable when the passenger asks for help,” says Ibbitson.

The airport is using a cloud-based single-sign-on service, from Okta, to allow employees to connect to airport applications from their phones securely.

New applications can be secured very quickly and if employees leave, their access can be quickly turned off, says Ibbiston.

Bye bye to BlackBerry devices

The BYOD service could mean a huge saving for the airport. The airport, which turned its BlackBerry service off last week,  will no longer have to pay for licences to run Blackerry infrastructure, and maintenance costs have also fallen, Ibbitson says.

“We used to have a queue at the IT department every Monday morning for every BlackBerry that was broken. That has gone away now, because staff take more care of their own devices,” he says.

The airport is working with mobile phone company Samsung to replace its information kiosks with 200 tablet devices.

The tablets will link directly to Gatwick’s web site, and will make it easier for staff and passengers to answer queries about flights or airport services.

Street View

And this week Gatwick launched a Google Street View application, that will help passengers find their way around the airport.

They will be able to use their own mobile phones like a compass, to help them find their way to the departure gates, or to the shops they want to visit to pick up duty free.

The airport is  also working with some of the airlines to develop automated bag drop kiosks, that could dramatically speed up boarding times.

Passengers will be able to register with their mobile phone, deposit their bag, and print out a baggage tag for their airline in just 45 seconds. Ibbitson has been testing the kiosks with Easyjet, but hopes to extend them to other airlines.

It has taken time to adapt to working with cloud providers based as far away as Asia and the US, says Ibbitson.

“We have been very keen to get the security of these services right,” he said. “If you don’t match our security requirements then you don’t get the business. That is the message we have sent out to all these service providers,” he says.

Changing mindset

The modernisation strategy has required a shift in mindset from the IT team, but they are excited about the journey, says Ibbitson.

“We have given them a presentation and a video of the passenger journey, showing where we would like to get too, with a really high tech airport and simple intuitive systems for the staff,” he says.

And that has helped the IT team buy into the new vision.

“With any large organisation you have to bring the people along with you who are really going to make it happen,” he says.

From datacentres to the cloud

Help desk

Michael Ibbitson, CIO of Gatwick airport, started with his own IT department when it came to rolling out the airport's first major business project in the cloud.

The IT team needed a better way to manage service calls, he says. The team tested ServiceNow's cloud-based software internally, before expanding it into a portal that any airport staff can use to report IT faults and order new equipment. 

"It is working really well," says Ibbitson.

Collaborative Decision Making

Next on the cards is a collaborative tool that will allow the airport staff, ground handlers, and airlines to manage the provisioning of aircraft once they have landed.

The package, which replaces several older pieces of software, will allow the teams at the airport to check for example, when planes have been filled with water and fuel, whether the passengers are on board.

Gatwick, which has developed the software with UFIS Airport Solutions, over the past year, will be the first airport to deploy the technology.

"UFIS had the concept and the idea well-structured, and some basic functionality. And we have helped them take that basic idea to the next level," says Ibbitson.


Gatwick is also moving telephony system into the cloud, Ibbitson says.

The airport has signed a contract with Cisco and Fujitsu to create a modern voice-over IP service that will also offer video conferencing and remote collaboration tools.

Under its current contract, the airport pays for 6,000 lines, many of which were built in the 1950s, but uses just over half that number in practice.

"The new infrastructure tracks the usage requirements exactly, so if we have 3,000 users we only pay for 3,000 users," says Ibbitson.

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