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CIO interview: Stuart Birrell, Heathrow Airport

Heathrow’s CIO is working to future-proof the airport, using technology to improve the passenger experience, reduce environmental impact and build a new operational model

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Heathrow Airport CIO Stuart Birrell is leading a strategy of technology-supported improvements that is crucial to one of the world’s most important air travel hubs.

He is working on projects based around three pillars: boosting operational resilience, improving passenger experience and building a new IT operational model, as well as predicting trends for the next five years.

“There is a real mixture of things going on which puts really intense demands on us in the short term, but we also have a lot of long-term plans and are looking at technology five years out,” Birrell tells Computer Weekly. “That is really exciting.

“Predicting what the technology world will look like within that kind of timeframe is hard, but a key part of our job is to keep on top of that and make sure we are all heading in the right direction.

“But it’s not just technology – we are very focused on providing the world’s best passenger experience, which puts real demand on us as IT. The [technology] expectations of passengers are changing rapidly, and building them into the airport is our mission.”    

Heathrow Airport is running at 98% capacity, so if anything goes wrong, recovery is a real issue. That means a critical area of focus for Birrell’s team is ensuring the technology that keeps the flight schedule moving is working smoothly. 

“That is basically getting passengers with bags onto planes on time, which is a real operational and technological challenge,” he says.   

“And when you start stretching technology the way we do and considering the demands we deal with, it really challenges standard assumptions in the IT industry in terms of what you can do and how you do things.”

In terms of how Heathrow ensures its IT recovery system is ready to respond to any eventuality, Birrell starts by stating that technology is not infallible – and that is a reality for any business.

Critical systems

“If your critical systems go down, how do you work with your operational business teams to mitigate, manage lots of manual back-up in certain areas, and what is the impact of this?” he says. “How do you design business continuity?

“The starting point is having a good business continuity plan. The second thing – which is really challenging us – is that the industry standard way of doing things around having high availability does not work. It is not robust enough.”

Heathrow’s high availability capability is being redesigned and built to be independent of the usual IT architecture. Also, the CIO wants operational staff to be accountable for initiating failovers. 

“Within five minutes of an incident, the operation guys at the operation centre can enact a failover, and it cuts out time, it cuts out decision-making, and you have a play book that says that in this scenario, this is exactly what you do,” says Birrell. “We have proved that it works.

“That is a great way of bypassing and planning for the fact that technology is not infallible. So it comes down to what it’s worth to you. For us in some areas, it is worth using a different design and challenging the industry. It’s challenging the supply chain on how to do these things.”

One example that is in design at the moment aims to avoid situations such as the outages in a Heathrow baggage area last summer, caused by a failure in underlying infrastructure, rather than the Vanderlande-supplied baggage system, which many publications wrongly blamed at the time, says Birrell.

Aiming for zero downtime 

Birrell says an outage at Terminal 5 alone could mean about 4,000 bags an hour piling up in the forecourt, as well as passengers travelling without their luggage. 

“If we can recover within half an hour of any major outage, most bags will be shipped with the passengers, which is our goal,” he says. 

“So it’s how do you get from what has typically been a two- or three-hour problem, down to a half-hour, 10 minutes, zero downtime. It’s building in those scenarios, consciously designing those scenarios.”

Some of Heathrow’s operational systems that handle the information flows around the airfield have already been designed in that concept. The project, which began before Birrell joined, enables scenarios where a three to four-minute interruption of information flows now means zero downtime for the operation. 

“How to transition critical systems over to a new architecture is a big area of focus for us in the next few years”

Stuart Birrell, Heathrow Airport

“That made a big difference in a couple of days last year and that’s a big success to us,” he says. “How to transition critical systems over to a new architecture is also a big area of focus for us in the next few years.”

The incidents in the baggage system happened soon after Birrell joined Heathrow last summer and informed some key decisions on the new strategy. 

“The technology and architecture we have is not a common structure in every company,” he says. “Then you have those conversations that ‘it didn’t fail the right way’ or ‘the way we expected it to’, but that has to be taken into account now.”

The baggage system in Terminal 3 is now fully operational and the last major airline operating in that building will move to the system within the next two months. 

Birrell says there are still issues with some of the automation aspects of the system, but overall bag performance is now at a “pretty good level”.

“We are now working with the airlines on how to optimise the system and start really driving open-minded processes around this as well as the technology to get the maximum benefit from it,” he says. “But it’s never just the technology, but also manuals, people processes and technology combined.”

Improving passenger experience

Improving the experience of the 75 million passengers who use Heathrow Airport every year is another important project stream for Birrell’s team. 

“Our ambition and vision is to provide the best passenger experience in the world and we are already among the best in Europe,” he says. “So how do you do that? It’s all about applying technology smartly to get the passenger experience. 

“That is through automation, ticketing, borders, working with the airlines on collaboration data and mapping information. 

“So there is a lot that we in IT can do to help power that ambition and it can be the best passenger experience in the world. It’s quite a tall order, but it’s really good fun.”

 Heathrow is in the process of looking at its whole IT operating model, including how to build technology-enabled answers to business needs that might arise in the next five years. 

“That will take us into whatever the next generation technologies grow into and the big challenge we have across a lot of consumer areas is the expectations of the passenger,” says Birrell.

“Things have really changed in the last five years with mobility, self-service, and so on. The world has moved on and we are constantly keeping on top of that. It’s quite a demanding task.”

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The CIO says it can be relatively simple to improve the passenger experience by subtle changes, such as the layout of some of the information on flight information screens in the terminals. 

“We have done some changes through the last six months which have made a huge difference to passenger information and to on-time departures, because passengers are more informed and get to the gate much more reliably and on time,” says Birrell. 

It is a challenge to ensure the information is presented in an uniform manner, says Birrell, because Heathrow deals with almost 90 airlines using different systems and data sources which have to converge seamlessly to the screens across the airport as well as to the web and mobile. 

Other ongoing passenger-focused projects include biometrics trials to simplify and ease passenger flow. Heathrow is working with IATA and the 86 airlines that use the airport to ensure the technology is interoperable across the supply chain. 

“We are pushing innovation boundaries on some of that and on how to link all of it together in a secure, safe manner,” says Birrell.

Reducing environmental impact 

Heathrow is also working with airlines to reduce the environmental impact of the airport.

“From a passenger perspective, the stacking over London has reduced dramatically, because once [flights] leave the source or originating airport, then have a landing slot at Heathrow, they are no longer circling over London and this has a big impact on noise and pollution,” says Birrell. 

“We have optimised the exit and flows from the stand to the runway. This means there are no longer queues of aircraft waiting a long time to get onto the runway because they don’t start their engines until they have moved across the airport to a take-off point on the runway.”

We are looking at noise footprints to make sure aircraft are using preconditioned air power, which is a lot more environmentally friendly
Stuart Birrell, Heathrow Airport

These improvements have been driven by economic and environmental concerns, says Birrell, adding that a lot of innovation has been going on in this area. 

“Heathrow is a very emotive subject at the moment, especially when you talk about expansion,” he says. “So some of the things we are doing are focused on how to help those communities in those areas. 

“We are looking at noise footprints to make sure aircraft are using preconditioned air power, which is a lot more environmentally friendly, for example. 

Heathrow is also working with airlines and some local universities on projects geared around big data analytics to further optimise aircraft flow and traffic planning, as well as airfield and passenger planning.         

Creating the IT operating model 

The new IT operating model for Heathrow is currently being designed and Birrell says it is a natural evolution from the traditional business partnering role to much more focused ownership by business areas. 

“For example, we will end up with the head of IT for baggage,” he says. “And all systems and performance in that baggage business area become [the business area’s] accountability as far as the business leadership is concerned. 

“It’s about creating segregated, specific and very focused business capabilities and instead of going from a flat, horizontal IT capability, it’s a much more vertically aligned business resource.”

The main element of rolling out this new model will be establishing the key leadership roles and aligning service partners and contracts with the internal organisation and operating model to reflect the changes, he says. 

“We are working with the partners on that process, which is why it is not finished yet because we can’t just bring in an IT operating model in isolation. That has to be across your supply chain as well,” he adds. 

When it comes to third-party agreements within IT, Birrell cautiously mentions the Capgemini contract, which is up for renewal soon – but says the airport’s business needs have evolved since the deal was first signed.

We are very focused on IT engineering and technical capability. I need to build up that skillset and not be 100% reliant on the partners out there
Stuart Birrell, Heathrow Airport

“We had five airports across the country, but Heathrow is now a standalone business,” says Birrell. “It needs a different style of contract and a different approach, so it’s really about just addressing a natural evolution to the business circumstances and the world of technology around us, what the business needs, what the industry requires and what we need to be successful. 

“The operating model is very focused on business domains and organising by business domains or business units depending on which type of company you’re in and ensuring we are focused on things that have a direct impact on passenger experience will obviously be the highest priority.” 

Building for the future 

According to Birrell, building a new operational model does not necessarily mean an increase in the company’s 100-strong team. 

“There will be a few additional people coming on board, but it’s not hundreds,” he says. “But we are very focused on IT engineering and technical capability. I need to build up that skillset and not be 100% reliant on the partners out there.”

During the coming year, implementations will include a move to Microsoft 365 and collaboration platform Azure. Also, Birrell expects a full biometrics trial to be running at the airport, as well as more automated gates. He also hopes the new operating model will be being implemented. 

Birrell is also looking into investment and technical strategies for 2019-2021. Long-term planning is required as part of the regulatory regime and Heathrow works with airlines on what needs to be done, which takes up quite a chunk of the CIO’s time. 

Future-looking projects include the application of blockchain technology for security and identity, as well as taking biometrics to the next level.

“Some of the global standards of micro-apps and containerisation will change how we develop an application suite, application systems,” says Birrell. “So I think there are some really exciting technologies coming along that will completely transform the passenger experience.

“I am trying to anticipate some of those big changes coming up and plan the future and potential expansion, minimising the impact on the local environment through the application of technology – which is something we have to really focus on. After all, we have a duty to minimise disruption.”

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