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CIO interview: Stuart Birrell, Heathrow Airport expands data flightpath

Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5A, British Airways aircraft on stand

“We are as big an information hub as we are a passenger hub,” Stuart Birrell, CIO of Heathrow Airport says from the hanger like head office of the organisation. Birrell and Heathrow are embarking on a major flight of change. We meet at the capital’s airport weeks before the Conservative minority government committed to building a third runway at Heathrow, despite stating the party would not back the extra runway.

More startling than another broken government promise is when Birrell says Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is about to turn 10 years of age and is therefore about to undergo a major refit. Terminal 5 still feels like a new addition to the UK travel landscape, but like the aircraft that arrive and depart, the pace of this sector is accelerating and require constant change.

“You can only do a major refit every 10 years and you have to educate the passengers as part of that,” Birrell says. “The challenge I have is how do you plan the technology for that,” he says, before adding the excitement is using the latest technology to improve the airport for the passengers and therefore deliver major business value. A part of this will be to make Terminal 5 “copperless”. Heathrow plans to use passive fibre networking and the airport has already carried out a working study of the technology in Terminal 2, which opened in June 2014.

“We can take out 30% of the construction cost and 80% of the technology costs,” Birrell believes. “You are handing real estate back to them. As we get fuller and fuller we have to be more flexible. Expansion is how do you leverage what you have already got,,” he says of the business value. Dallas Fort Worth airport and some in China have already adopted the technology, giving Heathrow the advantage of being a fast follower in the slipstream.

“There is a lot of office and crew rooms in prime places,’ Birrell says of how technology can create new business processes for the airlines and create space for the airport. “That could be five to 10 million extra through the airport and keep a great passenger experience.”

Stuart Birrell Heathrow CIO“It is a big programme, but cheaper than building additional terminals. If you don’t pour concrete it’s a huge saving,” Birrell (left) says.

“We are consciously designing a multi-process airport, whether it is for the business, assisted traveller or family, they all have different needs,” Birrell says when we asked him about the point made by Brussels Airlines CIO Simon Lamkin at a Horizon CIO Podcast roundtable that in the recent past the airlines and the airports disagreed and fought over who “owned” the passenger. Former easyJet tech leader Lamkin believes neither own the passenger, the traveller is independent and Birrell agrees. “The passenger is far more savvy now.”

As a result Birrell says there is a need for airport CIOs to be “orchestrating” and connecting up the relationships and services airlines, airports and their partners offer to deliver a great service to the passenger.

“It’s about how you get it right, working with the airlines as the passengers have so many different needs.

“We had a few negative service stories this year and they were justified,” he honestly admits about assisted travel passengers. “Clear information, collaboration and communications becomes absolutely crucial,” he says.

“Some airlines and airports are better at collaboration and some airports and airlines get carried away with their own importance.”


Data runway

Heathrow isn’t just adopting new technologies to increase passenger numbers, Birrell and his team see data as an important ticket to a better airport.

“We have written a number of the data standards for global industry and that has taken a lot of the cost out,” Birrell says of how Heathrow is working with IATA, the International Air Transport Association, to simplify business processes. Heathrow deals with 90 airlines and is working with them to all operate on a single data standard. “My service handles five million messages a day,” he says of being a bigger information hub than a passenger hub. Heathrow handled 213,668 passengers a day it claims.

At Heathrow a Microsoft Azure cloud platform provides a central data hub. “We have taken multiple business services, put them in Azure and then onto PowerBI, the Microsoft analytics tool.

“You know if a flight is two hours late from information passed to you by NATS (the air traffic control organisation); if there is transfer passengers on that flight you can predict the needs and rebook those passengers and help those people transfer. It takes a lot of stress out and it gets passengers on their flights,” Birrell says of how the data is helping improve the customer experience.

“We are now working on machine learning for some of the planning, such as security lanes. We can look at the flights, the load factors for example by using a couple of years worth of of history and you can then predict the right rate of security required,” the CIO says.  

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About Mark Chillingworth 278 Articles
Mark Chillingworth has over 20 years of journalism and editing experience across all media platforms including online, live events, print magazines and television.
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[…] In June 2018 Birrell sat with the Horizon CIO Podcast to explain the important role data and technology is playing in the expansion of the airport, which you can read in part one here. […]

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