Dubai Airports breaks up silos with Okta for a better passenger experience

Sooraj Shah Profile picture for user Sooraj Shah July 4, 2019
Dubai Airports technology chief Michael Ibbitson discusses its use of Okta's identity platform and why the aviation industry should break up identity silos

Dubai Airports DXB T3 welcome sign

Three years ago, Dubai Airports' growth was halted as it didn't have any more land to build on. Its decision was to become technology-centric, gaining growth through efficiencies in processes. It was around this time that the organization hired Michael Ibbitson as its EVP of technology and infrastructure, with a role to manage all of the IT systems for Dubai's two airports, as well as engineering services and energy management.

When Ibbitson had joined the organisation, it had a number of core legacy systems and was yet to embrace cloud services. But Ibbitson's vision was to change this with each individual project, digesting the organisation one step at a time.

A program of work around building an identity platform to link together all of the disparate applications used across the airports had already begun, and Ibbitson recognised one of the names on the procurement tender well from his time as CIO of Gatwick Airport:

I had experience of using Okta at Gatwick Airport, and they entered the procurement tender and won as they had the most flexibility of where they wanted to go long-term which aligned to us developing our cloud services strategy - Okta was the first platform on our software-as-a-service (SaaS) journey.

The likes of Ping, Oracle and OneLogin were all considered but Ibbitson says that Okta had the best maturity and overall product vision at that point in time. In addition, he was impressed with Okta's Integration Network, which allows organizations to adopt apps, centralise user management and automate access workflows:

We had a very diverse use case, as we had on-premise systems, we had cloud systems we wanted to bring in and we had a lot of legacy to deal with. Okta was the best set up for this, and it also had its Integration Network, which was extremely powerful for us, to move faster on deployment of other systems that we wanted in the ecosystem.

Opening up data using Okta

Dubai Airports has about 3,000 employees, but it has around 100,000 other staff that work within its buildings, including home-based airlines such as Emirates, European airlines like Lufthansa, duty free shops, supermarkets and other commercial tenants. Opening up information to people in these other organizations was an important goal, explains Ibbitson:

We realized that we needed to get data to these companies as well as the police, immigration and customs, but we didn't have deep integration with them and it would have cost a lot of money and taken a lot of time to build that type of infrastructure, so we decided that the best plan was to allow them to access our applications to access that data in a secure and controlled way where we can clearly identify them - this is something Active Directory wouldn't have supported. 

The airport was able to adopt a more flexible set-up, he explains, giving users access to the Dubai Airports Okta portal to access specific applications and certain elements of the data to monitor and use to improve their own performances. This in turn would improve the overall experience at the airport:

So whether that's making flights on time, getting bags through faster, making sure shops have the right stock, making sure they know when peaks of traffic are coming, and handling disruption like weather conditions.

For example, Dubai regularly is hit with foggy conditions, which means planes can be grounded. The shops need to be able to react accordingly, as there may be more demand than usual, or because passengers will arrive at slightly different times.

But traditional working patterns don't allow for this kind of flexibility, with staff working fixed shifts and having little access to real-time information.

So Dubai Airports now provides mobile apps to the management teams and to the people working inside these shops and terminal buildings to alert them and tell them exactly what's going on.

This means that if they know several flights are coming in 30 minutes later, rather than taking a break at a designated slot when there is no requirement for staff, employees can take their break early and work when there is a high-demand for staff.

Ibbitson emphasises that the data that retailers and other partners are allowed to access is restricted and secure with Okta.

Breaking up silos

This shift of sharing data this way is part of an overall change in the way airports operate, Ibbitson explains.

I've worked in a number of airports in India, the Middle East and Europe and found some consistent problems with the way airports are designed, the way they contract and the way they structure operations and it's usually down to the fragmentation of responsibility. 

Security is often run by police or national security and immigration is run by immigration, while airlines have their own way of doing things - with foreign carriers often having less influence. But the fundamental thing is there is a clear need for data for all of these parties and they all need to know how to react when there are disruptions to ensure the best possible service. 

Most airport operators who are central integrators of that data did not have a plan, Ibbitson suggests, but that is slowly changing with more and more airports taking on these ideas and managing operations holistically rather than in silos.

There are still hundreds of airports managing it silos, but the need to share data and use identities is getting ever more prevalent. 

In the future, he hopes that airports will change from being an endless list of identity checks - from booking tickets, to security, to immigration to the aeroplane.

It's annoying and it's one of the things that the aviation industry has to fix. It's something we're working on, which is how do you create an identity for a traveller that is served to all of the stakeholders involved in the journey. 

He gives the example of flying from London to Sydney via Dubai. He says that there would be up to 12 parts in the journey which check for a person's identity in that process.

Why can't your identity be provided to all of them in advance in a way that they can trust through a single biometric token for the whole journey? That's something we have a real interest in within the industry because it eliminates queues, time and improve the customer experience. 

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