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Heathrow Airport began a digitisation project two years ago and used the Microsoft Azure cloud and Microsoft Power BI to empower staff to use analytics in their day-to-day jobs. The final pieces of its new digital platform are now up and running.
Speaking to Computer Weekly about the transformation, Stuart Birrell, CIO at Heathrow, says: “From an internal perspective, we have restructured IT to look at how we deliver IT services.”
This transformation of IT took two years to deliver, he says. “At the end of that, we started to see the benefits of moving from monolithic outsourced contracts to a much more service tower approach.”
The airport’s IT still uses service providers, but now has an integrated approach with teams that focus on business areas, says Birrell. “We have a diverse environment at Heathrow and put domain expertise into teams.”
Explaining Heathrow’s digital transformation, Birrell says: “We have used the Microsoft toolset and set out out to update Windows 10.” That was just the start of the journey, and the company has subsequently rolled out Microsoft’s analytics tool, Power BI.
The technology was the easy part, says Birrell, adding: “We took a business change approach.” This involved putting an emphasis on making a cultural change to the way Heathrow’s employees work.
“We have change managers across the business, to encourage adoption of the technology and finding ways to work smarter,” he says. “It is about how we make the airport scalable. How do we become more flexible and data-driven to absorb capacity for a new runway?
“We recognise we have to do things differently and deploy digital tools. It is all about change and being comfortable with innovation.”
According to Birrell, cloud computing has caused the fundamentals of the CIO role to change. “IT is moving from a black art to a structured world,” he says. “We are not being worried about datacentres and capacity. It is all about how how we generate value.
“At Heathrow, there are only three people looking after the back office. Everyone else is looking after front-line systems, and work with management teams to deploy technology that adds value.”
High adoption rates
The project to deploy a new technical platform based on Microsoft began a year ago, he says. “Eight months after the deployment, the adoption rates are very high,” he adds.
For example, Birrell says staff with drive and interest in airport security or airfield safety have actively adopted Power BI to make sure everything runs smoothly. The platform enables Heathrow to join up the different parts of its operations.
“We have tens of thousands of people who work around the airfield,” says Birrell. “Safety is critical. Adopting tools like Power BI makes life easier. It is the simple things. There is GPS in the airfield vehicles. If a driver finds a problem with the concrete, this can be recorded accurately.”
Behind the scenes, Heathrow uses services such as Azure Data Lake Analytics, Azure Stream Analytics, and Azure SQL Database to extract, clean, and prepare real-time data about flight movements, passenger transfers, security queues and immigration queues before sending it to Power BI.
Power BI is also used to improve passenger flows for scheduled flight arrivals and departures. “We can run machine learning on the departure schedule,” says Birrell. This enables Heathrow to ensure it has enough people to man the security lines.
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Data from the airport’s main operational systems are fed up to Azure, including the systems for security, scheduling and baggage. Power BI is the default analytics tool, which everyone can access, says Birrell. “We can join data across the organisation,” he adds.
“We used to run flight schedule analysis in Excel, and it was always out of date. We can now run machine learning on the scheduling data. Given that we have 1,500 flights a day, load factors are dramatic. How many security officers or buses for transfers do we need?”
Birrell says it is possible for the airport to mash up historical scheduling data and a feedback loop to provide more accurate forecasts.
“For passengers, it is all about getting them to aircraft on time,” he says. A few years ago, Heathrow introduced an app to help passengers navigate to their departure gate.
“The big stress now is the security queue and getting through check-in,” says Birrell. “Some passengers arrive one to two hours ahead of their flight. A transfer passenger may only have 30 minutes. We recognise that different passengers have different needs. Predicting when a plane is going to be late is the biggest thing we can do.”
Changing focus of the CIO
For Birrell, CIOs need to stop worrying about keeping control of everything IT-related. “With all new technology, there is going to be a bit of chaos before the real value is realised,” he says.
As an example, he points to the introduction of desktop PCs in business in the 1980s. The value generated by the PC was that it changed the employee’s mindset. Today, nobody phones the helpdesk to ask how to do something in Excel, says Birrell, because the PC encouraged people to think differently.
“IT should be about allowing people in business to create value, not stop them,” he says. “My job is to give people frameworks and security, which allows them to create and experiment, and can generate value for the business.”
CIOs may be concerned that the new bits of software that users create will suddenly become the modern version of the rogue servers that used to live under people’s desks in the 1990s and ended up costing IT a lot of money, says Birrell.
He believes good administration can keep this under control, while giving the users freedom to create new value in the business. “If someone built some data analytics in half a day, why worry about it?” he adds. “Put monitors on it, and if it has not been used for six months, then put a stop on it.”