by Mark Chillingworth

Gatwick CIO Michael Ibbitson interview – Connected for take-off

Jan 19, 2016
IT StrategyTransportation and Logistics Industry

Information is the key word in the CIO job title. Information is in the centre of the CIO job title and should be in the centre of everything a CIO does. Information is at the centre of any airport as well, yet talk to veterans of the air trade and you’ll learn that as with any vertical market, there are silos and missed opportunities for information-based collaboration that will benefit a multitude of organisations.

Since taking off on its own charter journey outside of BAA, Gatwick Airport in West Sussex has been gaining increased lift from an information led strategy. The airport and its former big brother Heathrow, just west of London, have been headline news in recent times as they fight it out for government expansion approval. CIO of Gatwick Michael Ibbitson has been in the media a great deal this past year, but it’s his strategy that is helping Gatwick passengers and commercial users that is taking off, whether the airport expands or not.

“The CIO role at Gatwick is all encompassing for all technology services fits into the remit of the CIO,” Ibbitson tells me on a tour of his recently refitted IT department on the second floor, which has been designed to reflect customer needs and be a great environment for technologists.

“We provide technology to the terminals, car parks, some of the hotels on the campus and we have done a lot of integration with air traffic control supplier NATS, which sorts the space between departing aircraft.

“The aviation industry is always debating about who owns the customer. Everybody here at the airport is our customer, whether a passenger, airline, ground handler or retailer. We provide services to all of them,” Ibbitson says of a traditional friction that has existed between airlines and airport operators. A veteran airline CIO describes Ibbitson as one of the most collaborative CIOs they have worked with, and praised his efforts to communicate with airlines, which they say is rare.

Apps for all

Ibbitson and his team have created a suite of mobile apps to ensure that Gatwick acts as a hub, a port if you will, for all the different, but inter-related needs for staff, passengers and operators in an airport.

A staffing app, he says, ensures that everyone is aware of peaks and troughs in operating, giving staff greater autonomy on their work pattern, meaning they take breaks when its slow and are prepared for a busy period. “It makes them better hosts if you are better prepared to serve customers,” he says. Data from air traffic controllers, NATs and the airport is shared with airline easyJet via an API.

“We are totally symbiotic, easyJet is 40% of our business and we are 25% of its business, so we work together,” he says as we walk to the easyJet drop-in area; a wide, well lit self-service arena, with nary a queue in sight.

“The bag drop is an example of where we are a third-party integrator, and all parties tap into that,” he says of the physical airport being Gatwick, baggage handling being Menzies and the airline easyJet. Data from the bag drop is instantly available to the staff app, a traveller can walk up to any member of Gatwick staff and ask about their luggage and be shown on a mobile screen where in the process their luggage is.

“They are already doing 150,000 bag drops a week, with no waiting time above five minutes, so we are benefiting both brands. Hooking easyJet up to our API means passengers get all the airport information on their app,” so travellers don’t have to keep returning to screens for updates on gates or departure times – it is fed into their apps at the same time as it hits the screens. Walking about the West Sussex airport, just as on the streets of any town in the UK, travellers are hunched, staring at their devices.

“That means that passengers spend more time in the shops and they will be happy with easyJet,” the CIO says of two commercial customer groups he has benefited. Not only is Ibbitson’s strategy ensuring that travellers benefit the business models of retailers and airlines, a new business model, almost unique, is turning Gatwick into a travel retailer. Using the stream of information it has available to it, the airport is able to utilise its hub position to onsell further travel options and compete with travel brokers and disrupt the hub and spoke theory of airports.

“Gatwick Connect is a platform that we have developed to connect low-cost and full service airlines together, utilising our large short haul flight network with long haul flights,” he says of how a traveller can use Gatwick Connect to take an easyJet flight into the UK at Gatwick and then pick up a Norwegian flight on to another destination. “The transfers were already happening, but people were doing it all themselves. Now we take responsibility for the transfer risk, just like the traditional alliances,” he says of the ‘manual’ internet processes of creating just such an itinerary.

“There had to be a way of making it searchable, as we knew there was a market,” he adds. Skyscanner, the flight searching web tool, revealed passengers were carrying out these searches, so the need was definitely there. Ibbitson says you can now fly from Aberdeen to Los Angeles via a Gatwick Connect booking.

Norwegian, Wow and easyJet are initial adopters, while West Jet will join in 2016, the airport hopes. Virgin Atlantic have joined the free baggage transfer option of Connect.

“I think this model will lead to other airports adopting it, other airports have already expressed an interest in the technology. Milano was already doing it, but not through to the transaction. It is ideal for those airports dominated by low-cost airlines and it will lead to postcode to postcode travel as you can integrate taxi, train and flight travel on to the platform,” he argues. With Gatwick connected to 130 rail destinations it’s a powerful travel concept as an entire journey will able to be purchased as a single transaction.

Connect isn’t just about technology evolution at the airport, it is clearly about Gatwick’s ambitions to expand and to build another runway in the Sussex countryside.

“Certainly one of the remits I have here is to ensure that Gatwick is known for being a technologically advanced airport. This is a competitive environment and technology is where we are competing at the top end.

“Our use of software-as-a-service (SaaS) and cloud is about making sure that everything is scalable and I’m confident Gatwick could deliver a second runway,” Ibbitson enthuses.

Technology journey

The CIO joined Gatwick in 2012, two years into the airport’s separation from BAA, which owns Heathrow and is now a competitor. “The first couple of years were about separation. That was a challenge and I was glad I came into that at the end of the process, as we had a lot of legacy and by December 2015 we will have got rid of all of that. Today, Gatwick has a highly refreshing set of vendors on its supplier list, including Xchanging, Getronics, Okta, Box and Yammer.

“When you engage with these smaller more agile businesses there is a challenge, but you get a much more competitive price, but if you are a brand like Gatwick it’s great for them and it’s great for us,” he says of the app work Casper has produced. Ibbitson uses the latest service-driven Microsoft tools, BizTalk and Azure, and has some Oracle in the business, but says of the old heavyweights: “We don’t get the same level of agility and innovation from them.

“It’s about blending these smaller organisations with mature providers over time, so there is a whole range of suppliers,” he says.

Casper provides dashboard of the airport using open source mapping that shows every single aircraft and vehicle on the site. As a map and information geek, I was just in heaven watching the airport in action from a giant wall screen in the agile stand up area of Ibbitson’s team.

Splunk tools provide a dashboard of real-time ground handler and active performance, which is highly important information in an airport reliant on low-cost carriers who like to utilise every second. Okta has been selected as the provider of the identification management to ensure the airport operates an Identity-as-a-Service (IaaS) secure layer that enabled BYOD and that freedom for information to flow. “It is important to make that level of data available to staff to make the customer experience very good,” the CIO explains.

Ibbitson says this strategy has also been hugely benefited by the support he receives from the CEO and his peers.

“It was clear to me that I would get the support and freedom from the CEO. We are a technology dependent business, if you shut the IT down the business is halved, so IT is very much part of the business. The CEO, COO and CFO and I, we all go through the IT for the next six months, and together prioritise what to start, what to stop and other priorities. Everything we do has an IT element.

“If the CIO is not reporting to the CEO they are not going to get the attention that IT needs. We do, of course, need to be careful with bandwidth as we always have twice as many initiatives than the size of team and its bandwidth.”

Much of the technology described above is in essence an Internet of Things strategy, sensors and tools to collate, secure and distribute information to make the service work most efficiently, and Ibbitson doesn’t pay the hype of Internet of Things a great deal of energy.

He told us that: “Some 2,800 are employed by Gatwick. There are 35,000 network points, so there are a lot of things connected to the network, such as 1,200 screens, hundreds of queue measurement tools in the roof, and we have facial-recognition and iris scanners, so there’s a huge amount of sensors connected to the network. There are sensors on the stands to help the pilots park the planes and on our biggest day this year, 28 August, 934 flights went in and out that day and each flight is over 400 data points when it is here. We have 150,000 passengers, each of them is a lot of data points. We use that data to drive on-time performance, and each airline and ground handler has a live league table dashboard of how they are performing that day,” he says of real?time analytics Splunk provides to create a connected environment.

Ibbitson leaves theGatwick Airport this month to take up a new role with Dubai Airport. He joined Gatwick from Abu Dhabi airport where he was VP for IT for four years. Dubai is a return to the Middle East for the young CIO and will see him departing one of the world’s busiest single runway airports and arrive at one of the most significant international travel and business hubs on the planet. Dubai airport has been undergoing a significant rebuild and expansion for a number of years and is the ‘home’ airport of the Emirates airline.

“It’s a chance for me to grow beyond the CIO role; the executive team is smaller and the airport is twice the size,” he reveals. “I get to work on the six-runway Dubai World Central Airport development,” he adds. Dubai World Central Airport is already open to cargo flights that will see an airport as the central hub of a city, complete with residential and business facilities. The variety of the job is exciting. Baggage is like manufacturing and that has to be integrated with the check in service, which is where we work with the airline,” he says of his love of airport CIO roles.