How networking brought innovation and automation to Heathrow Terminal 2

Heathrow Airport has put automation and collaboration at the heart of a £34m network deployment in Terminal 2

When Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 opened during the summer of 2014 after years of planning, development and construction, the world held its breath for a repeat of the operational disaster that overshadowed the opening of Terminal 5 in 2008.

But the headline-writers were to be disappointed. Determined to avoid a repeat of the Terminal 5 fiasco – which led to the cancellation of over 500 flights and saw 42,000 items of baggage misplaced – Heathrow Airport put planning and testing at the heart of its IT strategy for Terminal 2, going so far as to construct an offsite mock-up of the new building to enable stakeholders and partners to test their systems.

“In 2007 IT was a provider of infrastructure into the airport, and we were passive,” says Neil Clark, Heathrow Airport CIO. “But now IT is at the heart of everything we do, and every one of our operational processes and procedures has complex IT driving it.”

With the network sitting firmly at the core of the terminal’s operations, Heathrow Airport brought in Fujitsu to help apply some of the lessons it learned from Terminal 5.

The £34m project, which spanned four years, saw Fujitsu take charge of implementing an integrated network system at Terminal 2, the backbone around which the airport’s operational and passenger-facing infrastructure sits.

The IT challenges of building Terminal 2

In December 2012 Computer Weekly went behind the scenes at Terminal 2 to learn how technology underpins the new facility. Read the feature here.

Fujitsu installed a network that spans 130 communications rooms around the terminal. It comprises 420 Cisco switches with 11,000 systems patched over them. There are a total of 1,700 phones and help points, a large Aruba Networks wireless network and 40km of copper and fibre cabling connecting everything to the rest of the Heathrow campus, and the wider world. At its peak, Fujitsu had over 100 people working on the project.

It took advantage of Heathrow’s testing facility to connect and configure the entire infrastructure in advance of its deployment, meaning that, when the time came, it was far simpler to ensure the installation work went to plan.

“In delivering this we have worked with a lot of partners and they needed to work very closely together. Fujitsu had to work hand-in-glove with the construction guys,” says Clark. “What we valued at Terminal 2 was the way in which they all worked together to make this successful.”

A smoother ride for passengers

Travellers through Terminal 2 may already have noticed improvements to the overall passenger experience. Automation is the name of the game, and none of it would have been possible without a secure and resilient network tying it all together.

“If you want to operate in Terminal 2, you have to embrace some level of automation,” says Clark. “This was a great opportunity to automate and put in some really modern infrastructure.”

Some of the 26 airlines operating from the terminal are already taking advantage of the ability to operate automated, passenger-controlled ticket presentation at the gates. Others have even begun self-boarding.

If you want to operate in Terminal 2, you have to embrace some level of automation

Neil Clark, Heathrow Airport

As the new home to Star Alliance – a consortium of airlines that includes Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa, Scandinavian, Singapore Airlines and United, among many others – Clark wanted to provide a commonality of experience.

This has resulted in the implementation of a universal check-in area. Whereas in other Heathrow terminals passengers must locate and queue at their airline’s dedicated desk to check their baggage, in Terminal 2 they can go to any desk they choose, reducing queue times.

Understanding how passengers use airports has been key to how Heathrow designed Terminal 2.

The ability to track mobile devices around the terminal building allows it to aggregate data and find out what people do, once they have passed through security; how long they dwell in certain areas; and where bottlenecks and crowds are likely to form. This data will enable Heathrow to address the specific needs of its passengers better in the future.

Business travellers, for example, like to show up close to their departure time, know how airport security works and want to move quickly through the airport to their gate, preferably without having to talk to anybody. Holidaying families, on the other hand, are more likely to spend time sitting in communal areas or cafés and restaurants, and make more of an experience out of their time in the terminal.

“We would have liked to have embraced more mobile innovation,” says Clark, “giving passengers the ability to have information on their own device, or to go to specific points in the terminal to receive personalised real-time information, such as your flight is leaving from gate 35, it’s a 25 minute walk, or special offers.

“There is no question that passengers are saying ‘we want connectivity and personalised information’.”

Having streamlined the core experience for passengers moving through Terminal 2, Clark is turning his attention to addressing the peripheral parts of the experience that, for some travellers, can make all the difference, such as retail and food service.

Terminal 2 contains a wide variety of shops and restaurants, including the first ever branch of John Lewis at an airport, and the Perfectionists’ Café, developed by Heston Blumenthal.

“This is where we are going next,” says Clark, “working with retail to understand how we can work better together to provide a better retail experience for our customers.”

Making room for everyone

The commonality of experience extends right across the network, which is shared by a host of different parties. Besides airline operations, check-in, baggage handling, retail, food service and the like, in the loop are stakeholders such as the Metropolitan Police and the UK Border Force, the Home Office body responsible for regulating and controlling entry to the country.

“We are carrying all this traffic on the same physical network,” says Clark. “We must make sure we have the right balance of capacity and security on the network. That was an important part of what Fujitsu did.”

Managing network contention and traffic is perhaps the most pressing concern. Crucial systems – such as security, baggage handling and aircraft movements – must function perfectly, all the time. Retail is less important to the day-to-day running of the airport, but remains critical to passengers' experience.

Then there is passenger Wi-Fi use. Currently passengers moving through the airport get 45 minutes online for free, although Clark is looking at the possibility of extending that.

Public Wi-Fi could induce more peaks and troughs in network usage; Terminal 2 has capacity for several thousand people, but the number of people moving around varies dramatically through the day, depending on the flight schedules. Things tend to get very busy, for example, an hour or so before Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A380 takes off.

Heathrow made sure Fujitsu built in enough capacity to enable staff and systems to operate collaboratively, accommodate fluctuating day-to-day demands and remain functional at all times.

Networking for the future

Fujitsu’s success in implementing the project has already paid off for the integrator, which has now signed on as a so-called Centre of Excellence (CoE) for private mobile radio and cellular projects at Heathrow.

This means it will provide all radio and cellular requirements to the airport for the next two years.

Heathrow’s Centres of Excellence are intended to foster a broader, deeper partnership with key supplier partners, not just to deliver on the airport’s technology roadmaps but to exploit the knowledge and understanding of suppliers and integrators alike.

The first project to be delivered under the programme will centre on refreshing the private mobile radio infrastructure for Terminal 3. The second project will be to roll out 4G mobile coverage across the Heathrow campus, to be followed by the implementation of a digital private mobile radio system, again airport-wide.

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