Gatwick Airport's CIO puts passenger experience on cloud flight path

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman June 4, 2014
The airport’s bid for London’s next runway may still be up in the air, but Gatwick CIO Michael Ibbitson is clear on the technology route that the airport needs to take.

Michael Ibbitson

This week, the fierce battle between London’s two main airports for the right to build the UK capital’s next runway stepped up a notch.

At Heathrow, the opening of the new Terminal 2 - the Queen’s Terminal - was a chance for bosses there to remind the public that, if they’re given the go-ahead for a third runway, then this new terminal will become one of two main passenger hubs for the airport.

At Gatwick, meanwhile, it was announced that planned transportation improvements mean that the airport will be “road and rail ready” for a second runway by 2021 - and, it’s claimed, “at no extra cost to the taxpayer.”

For now, the vexing problem of London’s dwindling airport capacity remains up in the air. A final recommendation from the independent Airports Commission isn’t due until the summer of 2015 and a government decision may take much longer.

But at Gatwick, managers remain positive that, alongside the financial, logistic and environmental arguments in the airport’s favour, the ‘passenger experience’ that it offers will also be a deciding factor. In fact, the phrase is used no less than 29 times in Gatwick’s ten-year business plan, released last year.

“The prospect of competition to provide extra capacity will put renewed focus on which airport has the more compelling vision for the passenger experience today and into the future and can demonstrate in the meantime the ability to deliver,” the report reads.

That puts a good deal of pressure on Gatwick Airport’s CIO, Michael Ibbitson - but this emphasis on passenger experience is one of the things that attracted him to the role, he says.

“When I first sat down with CEO Stewart Wingate and COO Scott Stanley, it was really clear to me that they understood how important IT was, as a differentiator between Gatwick and its competitors around the London area,” he explains. “I knew I’d have a big part to play. That was a great carrot that they dangled in front of me.”

On joining Gatwick in May 2012, Ibbitson quickly saw that, in order for he and his team to fulfil this role, they needed to be able to introduce new innovations faster, as well as get existing technology to work in more flexibly.

“The only way to do that,” he says, “was to go down a cloud services route, using infrastructure- and software-as-a-service more than we had done, over traditional, large-scale capex investments in data centres and on-premise systems.”

At the same time, he adds, the IT function needed to establish a great reputation among the frontline and back-stage staff at Gatwick who directly deliver the passenger experience - the employees who deal with passengers at check-in, get them through security, transport their luggage, and so on.

Help in the cloud

As a result, one of Ibbitson’s first actions was to move the airport’s outsourced IT service desk operations back in-house while, at the same time, using a SaaS offering, ServiceNow, to support them.

Other SaaS applications quickly followed: Microsoft’s Yammer social networking application is used for internal communications among airport staff dealing with disruption in periods of adverse weather conditions, for example; content collaboration from Box, says Ibbitson, has played a key role in assembling all the documents, maps, spreadsheets and other files needed to support Gatwick’s bid for London’s next runway; and identity and access management from Okta provides Gatwick employees with single sign-on for multiple cloud-based systems.

On June 17, meanwhile, Ibbitson and his team will deploy a new cloud-based tool that will be used by staff working in airport operations and at ground handling firms, cargo companies and airlines: Airport Collaborative Decision-Making (ACDM). This combines airport operations data with radar data from air traffic control on a cloud-based platform, where it is superimposed on a map of the airport and served to authorised users over the Internet, giving them near real-time views into airfield conditions and developing situations.

All this has meant a big change in focus for the Gatwick IT team. “In this move to the cloud, we’ve become experts at integration,” says Ibbitson. “That’s exactly what I intended. Our job in IT should be about connecting together systems and applications from different suppliers and in different locations, rather than the day-to-day maintenance of those systems.”

In other words, much like their colleagues in air traffic control, the role of IT staff increasingly focuses on the coordination and orchestration of many moving parts, in an extremely busy environment.

One of Gatwick’s most important partners on this cloud journey has been IT services company Getronics, and this week, the airport has announced an extension of that relationship. Over the next four years, as it continues its transformation, Gatwick will use staff from the firm to give it extra staffing flexibility.

That, too, will be vital to the airport’s efforts to improve the passenger experience, says Ibbitson. “We can’t possibly keep on our team enough IT staff to cover the full breadth of technologies and variety of tasks we need to get involved with. So we signed up with Getronics to use their staff, both locally and internationally, to help us deliver new projects, do some business analysis work, or even just augment our own staff on the service desk during busy periods.”

“That’s great for us,” he continues, “because it means I can concentrate on this passenger experience work, rather than worry about having the staff to cover a lot of the ongoing day-to-day activities.”

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