Heathrow Airport data takes off with Microsoft

Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth By Mark Chillingworth July 6, 2021 Audio mode
Heathrow, the UK’s largest airport, creates an information platform with data specialists and Microsoft technology

Image of Heathrow Terminal 5
(Image by graceful from Pixabay )

Data will play a crucial role in airport operations in the coming years. At Heathrow, the UK's busiest airport, the organization is now joined at the HIP to data, as its Heathrow Insights Platform (HIP) is informing business operations, supporting retailers within the airport and analyzing the cargo flows of the country's largest port by value. 

HIP uses the full suite of Microsoft cloud and data tools. Andy Isenman, Head of Technology: Cloud and Data at Heathrow Airport, explains that a data and analytics managed services partnership is delivering the insights the airport's teams need to pilot the organisation.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Heathrow Airport was the world's second busiest airport by international passenger numbers and the busiest airport in Europe. Consisting of two runways and four passenger terminals, and a major cargo terminal, Heathrow is the primary hub for British Airways, whilst 84 different airlines use the airport, serving 203 destinations. The airport covers 1,227 hectares, has 133 air bridges and a further 64 remote bridges, whilst the cargo operation supports 15 stands.

The Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd business is owned by a major consortium that includes Spain's Ferrovial, Qatar Investment Authority, fellow investment organisations CDPQ, GIC, USS, as well as Alinda Capital Partners and the China Investment Corporation. As the UK's most important airport, the business is regulated by both the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

A new flight

In 2017 Heathrow Airport formed a strategic relationship with Microsoft to modernize the airport's technology infrastructure. Microsoft Azure, Power BI, Office365 and Windows 10 were adopted as the core technologies for the airport, including the delivery of a data platform.

As well as a new technology stack, Leanne Lynch, Director of Technology and Cyber Defence at Heathrow, re-organized the technology operating model for the airport, introducing a series of pods. Each pod has a work stream that enables the organization to see the value technology brought to the airport more easily.  Andy Isenman, Head of Technology: Cloud and Data at Heathrow Airport, says of the new operating model:

The pods bring multi-disciplinary teams together around key areas such as cloud, data, operational, corporate and commercial systems.

In conjunction with the technology refresh, the airport began work on its data strategy and the Heathrow Insights Platform (HIP). This began with the development of the Heathrow Universal Data Lake (HUDL).

The aim of HIP and the data focus, Isenman says, is to ensure that Heathrow becomes a data-driven organization and uses data to reach its business objectives and regulatory demands.

As with any large organization undertaking a data programme, Heathrow discovered a series of data silos all across the airport as it developed HUDL and then HIP. Isenman describes these small data lakes as data puddles. Isenman adds:

We have worked very closely with the owners of these data puddles, and we have found lots of value in them. The objective has not been to remove the puddles but to work out how to get the most value for the business.

The reason being they can be really good for prototyping and innovation, so no, we are not actively removing them. The common goal is to deliver structured value for Heathrow.

Data's new role

Recent events have highlighted to Heathrow Airport how important data is in the operation of the business. Isenman says:

Forecasting has become a completely different beast, being done day-on-day, rather than month-on-month or year-on-year. We have re-platformed the retail data to provide insight into how the stores in the airport are used and analysed the impact of the re-introduction of Value Added Tax (VAT).

In the cargo operations of Heathrow, we are now able to calculate the value of the cargo travelling through the airport. This became particularly important during the height of the pandemic when the airport ramped up its cargo capacity to keep the UK's vital supply lines open for deliveries of medicines, testing kits, respirators and PPE.

HIP started as a data lake project (HUDL), and then we took a modular approach so that the HIP layer was added to provide a more usable form of data access.

HIP has also provided the airport with the ability to analyze all areas of its operations down to details such as how colleagues commute to and from the airport, as well as how these behaviours might be impacted by more flexible working policies going forwards.

Managed service

With a data lake in place, Heathrow Airport needed data expertise, but expertise and resources that could be flexible and able to respond to the changing needs of an airport. In May 2020, three months into the pandemic, Heathrow formed a partnership with Adatis, a Microsoft data and analytics specialist, to become a key partner in the HIP programme.

Heathrow, like many businesses, had to adapt as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, and Isenman describes the pace of the data strategy, tools and managed services partner selection as lightning fast. He says: 

Once selected, we handed Adatis a pre-production system. A managed service offers Heathrow scale and access to resources.

Isenman says that in the highly competitive field of data and analytics, specialist partners are best able to provide the expertise required, which are then available as a cloud-like resource. With demand for data and analytics skills high, enterprises struggle to consistently provide the right challenges, and accessing this resource can be prohibitively expensive.

With the managed service in place, a data analysts' workbench is being developed, which will streamline analytics processes across the airport; and a secure area for the management of Personal Identifiable Information (PII).

Isenman says the partnership with Sofia and UK based Adatis is an example of the Heathrow philosophy that partnerships are based on 10% technology and 90% the people and their approach to solving business problems. Isenman adds:

There was a very open culture right from the beginning. It is about confidence, maturity and an ability to listen.

My take

Air travel is undergoing a major transformation, not only from the impact of the pandemic but also the growing realization around the world that climate change has to be tackled, evidenced by shareholder action in boardrooms and investment decisions. Globally airports will need to chart a course very similar to that taken by Heathrow and ensure their technology stack enables data analytics to improve operations, lower the impact on the planet and improve the bottom line. In adopting a managed services approach, Heathrow and Isenman have understood their core business and brought in skills to ensure the business can fly high.