by Edward Qualtrough

Heathrow CIO Neil Clark interview – Flying high in passenger satisfaction

Oct 10, 201415 mins
IT LeadershipIT StrategyMobile Apps

Heathrow Airport is at 98% capacity, running its operations at almost 480,000 take-offs and landings a year, or one every 45 seconds from around 5am until 11pm.

The airport, the busiest in the world by traffic of international passengers, insists it needs to build a third runway to ease capacity issues when severe weather strikes, overhaul its cargo and freight facilities, and enable it to compete on an equal footing with Europe’s other major air travel hubs – Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, and Frankfurt Airport.

London’s airports are creating plenty of political turbulance at present as leaders argue whether Heathrow should get a third or extended runway, or if Gatwick a second runway to double its passenger traffic to over 70 million a year and thus compete with Heathrow? London Mayor Boris Johnson and architect Lord Norman Foster may also want to resurrect their recently-sidelined plan to build a four-runway hub airport in the Thames estuary at an estimated cost of £50 billion, while many also say that the UK doesn’t need another major air hub at all.

Politics aside, operating at 98% is a success story worth celebrating and which Heathrow CIO Neil Clark says is underpinned by technology and collaborative decision-making.


“From an operational perspective we are capped and we are running at over 98% of capacity,” Clark says in the new £2.5 billion Terminal 2 building which opened earlier this year.

“That means any issue we have at Heathrow it’s very difficult to recover from – there isn’t space in the schedule. When other airports have an operational issue like weather; if they are operating at 60% capacity then they’ve got time in the day to catch up and recover. At Heathrow with a take-off or landing every 45 seconds, if we have an hour’s disruption then it’s very hard – impossible in fact – to get those aircraft back in the schedule.

“What’s happening here is a very tightly-optimised operation with very little room to recover from operational difficulties, which is why we are always in the press when there are issues.”

Technology underpins everything at Heathrow, according to Clark, from baggage handling and asset maintenance, the airfield process, and the overall operations of planning, control and bringing together all the stakeholders from across the vast site.

“Technology is at the heart of all those things,” he explains. “The three things I look to, going forward, are how can we use technology to unlock capacity and since we are at capacity, how can we use our resources better and get more efficient?

“Secondly, how do we increase resilience so when we have issues which we always will do, how do we recover from those faster?

“And also a relentless focus on using technology to improve the passenger experience – those are my three guiding lights.”

Passenger experience

Heathrow has made big improvements in this area, Clark says. Five years ago half of its passengers rated the airport good or excellent in the industry-wide ASQ benchmark in airport service quality regarding passenger satisfaction. The figure now stands at 80% of passengers travelling through Heathrow, moving the world’s third busiest airport in terms of total passengers from the bottom quartile to the top quartile.

The CIO, who spent 25 years at British Airways before joining BAA – now Heathrow – as Head of IT Planning and Control in 2009, says this has prompted the organisation to move the targets of its business plan from being the best of Europe’s hub airports to being one of the best in the world.

“Our competition is to get the best airlines in the world travelling through Heathrow,” Clark explains.

An airport is a unique environment to improve the customer experience, an environment which is as much owned by the airlines as it is by the airport, making the dynamic of how the two work together interesting, Clark says.

“You buy a seat on a plane and have a relationship with an airline maybe a year before your flight – with them emailing you and contacting you,” he says.

“You check-in online at home, but then you come to Heathrow and as you go through the airport you are touched by different people whether they be airline staff or support staff. You can go to a check-in and the airline knows everything about you, but when you travel through security other than who you are and where you are flying you become more anonymous. The next time you get to the gate they know exactly who you are again.

“Our next challenge is to collaborate with the airlines to make that more seamless. We need to do all that and allow airlines to keep their information sensitive since they are all competing against each other. We need to find a way to collaborate at an operational level and a better passenger data level which gives a better experience but at the same time allows airlines to protect their commercial sensitivities.

“There’s nothing to stop us from a technology perspective, it’s all there. It’s about how we collaborate as a business; it’s about culture and process.”


Changing the airport check-in process for the opening of the new Lord Foster-designed Terminal 2 was something Clark and his team at Heathrow took on as a business challenge in line with the airports strategies.

“The business challenge was how could we get 24 airlines into Terminal 2 at the check-in concourse. We’ll have 20 million passengers coming through here when we’re full, but if each airline operated in the traditional way with a number of desks each there wouldn’t be capacity to have them all in there at once, and Star Alliance [the world’s largest global airline group which includes Lufthansa and United] was very keen to bring all their carriers into one terminal under one roof,” Clark explains.

The airlines now operate what Clark terms a “truly common check-in solution” at Terminal 2 – where after the self-service units are libero check-in agents who can “process any passenger from any airline at any time in any order”.

Clark says: “It’s unlocked capacity and gives us a better flow through the terminal. It was an interesting technology challenge.

“We worked with Star and created a model airport simulating the technology for the whole process. When we implemented it we know it would work. We’d ‘de-risked’ it and proved it off-site,” Clark adds.

Once the technical problem was solved, Clark said that the focus was then making it work from a people and process perspective which ultimately improves the experience for the passenger.

Indeed, it’s the culture and process that Heathrow Head of IT Strategy and Innovation, Richard Harding, says supports the system which could be rolled out across all the airport’s terminals.

“This will all fall down if either the passengers or staff don’t understand what they’re doing,” Harding says. “If systems all work, we need to make sure staff are using the facilities in the right fashion and have people in the right place facilitating the process, and IT is at the heart of it.”

Appreciating all these changes to how an airport operates and how this affects the passenger journey, there’s one elephant in the room which Harding mentions as Heathrow’s biggest leap forwards in the passenger experience.

“Passengers expect WiFi now,” he says. “We used to provide a good level of WiFi service, but it was paid for. Over time it became expected that you get WiFi for free.

“Last year we implemented a very good service with 3,500 access points offering free WiFi. It took from the bottom quartile to the top in terms of passenger experience,” he quips.

Leveraging the network

Obviously there’s more to connectivity than satisfying the business needs and social media habits of travellers, and Harding explains how the airport has now built on this.

“We have 4G connectivity in our terminals for passengers and we also have our own private 4G network which spans the airfield – it’s a big open space out there with lots of field workers and engineers doing various work.

“We’re a key piece of national infrastructure with a police station, two fire stations and a morgue. It’s a mini city with a ring road, traffic lights and sewerage that’s all controlled by us,” Harding says.

Harding and the team see mobility as a big opportunity for the airport, which needs to save £600 million from its operating costs in the next quarter. “One of the ways of doing that,” he says, “is making our people who work here more effective, and a great way of doing that is giving them the tools which enables them to do their jobs in a more effective manner.”

The team have now deployed ruggedised tablets to its airfield workers who inspect and maintain runways. The previous method of inspectors marking laminated maps with Stabilo pens, logging the data back at the base before it gets picked up by an engineer to try and find out in the field has been usurped by Panasonic Toughbooks utilising the 4G network and fixed up to a GPS unit which knows to within the area of a 50p coin where a fault was logged.

Harding said that they worked with a small supplier “very good at mapping who really understood mapping interfaces” to work with them on the app, which following trials has led to a 40% time saving doing an inspection and an increase from 72% to 99% for engineers locating issues.

Facilitators and custodians

The drive behind such projects certainly isn’t a top-down approach based on the technology they want to deploy, Harding and Clark explain, rather its sourcing business challenges and seeing what Clark’s department can do to help.

Harding said: “We never saw our job as coming up with ideas; we’re more custodians and facilitators of a process – and the process is business change-led. It’s not about technology or shiny things, but about going out there and having challenge workshops, sitting down with different areas of the business and finding out their issues and challenges and what keeps them up at night.

“We spend a lot of time talking to the business, take the challenges away and looking at whether it aligns with Heathrow’s strategic goals of passenger experience and airport resilience, and if we have the right skills to solve it.

“We take the business on a journey – once we take on their challenges we involve them through the whole of the process.”

This is a change from previous attempts at business change innovation which went wrong, according to CIO Clark.

“The reason why this is working is because we approach it from working very closely with all business areas and capturing our business challenges – and then the innovation team look for what technology can support or solve that challenge,” Clark explains. “In the past we failed because we took bits of technology and looked at what we could do with it.

“This approach resonates with our people because we talk about their problems, then we look at the technology which can help them. People want to engage and it becomes self-fulfilling with people coming up with more ideas and it starts to build.

“We’ve got all the technologies there. There’s so much out there the challenge is how do we take the technology and combine it with other pieces to solve business challenges – that’s our focus.”

Collaborative decision-making

At the 2014 CIO Summit,  NBC Universal’s CIO 100 member Andrew Jordan said that “innovation isn’t just about making your own organisation better, it’s about making the industry better as well” – and Harding’s ‘collaborative decision-making’ implementation to improve airfield operations and the management of take-offs and landings falls firmly in the category of improving a whole industry.

“How we manage an aircraft landing at Heathrow, taxiing to stand, disembarking passengers, refuelling, taxiing and taking-off again with a take-off and landing every 45 seconds is critical,” Clark explains.

“We effectively brought together all the stakeholders in the airport to look at how we can have a single plan and then on a day-to-day basis run that plan so an airline is ready for its slot, and airlines are incentivised to be on that.

“If you miss your slot you don’t just miss; it’s not first come first served. In the bizarre world of airports being early is just as bad as being late. A plane that wants to go early causes just as much disruption as one going late because of regulations based on its size and ‘wash’.”

Indeed, some 20-25% of capacity in Europe’s upper air space is lost due to the unpredictability of aircraft and flight schedules, Clark says, with smaller aircraft not able to follow heavier vehicles which have a bigger wake turbulence.

What Heathrow adopted was a business change project “with some technology innovation and some business innovation”, with every flight treated as a case in a new case management system visible to all relevant stakeholders. “Everyone is aware of the plan and the situation it’s in,” Clark says.

“It solves a really tough operational problem – with all areas contributing to one plan, understanding where we are on that plan and sticking to it.”

Clark said that this has resulted in average departure delays being reduced by 20%, slot compliance of 90% and a 10% reduction in the airfield carbon footprint due to less taxiing time, hold time and ultimately fuel burn.

“And the big one,” Clark says, “is EUROCONTROL – which controls European airspace – said that when we implemented this at Heathrow they saw a 10% improvement in the use of European airspace. That’s how big Heathrow is in terms of traffic in and around Europe.

“There were some massive improvements for us operationally, for the airlines and also for the broader airspace around Europe.”

Outsourced and on board

Clark has been CIO at Heathrow since August 2012 when he took over from Philip Langsdale who left to join the Department for Work and Pension. Clark reports to the chief executive which he believes is an important distinction.

“I report to directly to our CEO John Hollande-Kaye, who has a team of eight including myself,” Clark says. “It’s a good place and the right place for a CIO to be at an organisation.

“It’s understanding technology is such an important part of our business and our operations and part of driving the business forwards.”

Clark oversees a Heathrow technology team of just over 100, operating a fully outsourced model following a strategic deal with Capgemini, ending in February 2016 but with options to extend, which runs all of the airport’s day-to-day IT services, while maintaining other key partners in the technology delivery space including the likes of Fujitsu, Cognizant and Atkins.

“This allows us to focus on being an intelligent client – understanding our own business we set the technology direction we want to go in and then we work with partners to deliver projects that solve our business problems that work within the framework and architecture of our strategy,” he says.

“We’ve got a spend of around £150-200 million through that model. It’s a very different setup to an in-house organisation, but it means we can focus on the business challenges, make sure the projects are running efficiently and at the end make sure we are achieving the benefits and outcomes we set out at the start.”

Although the Heathrow model has been to outsource, Clark does not rule out that some aspects could be brought back into the organisation.

“Particularly in the digital space,” he says. “John Lewis is a really good example. We’re not quite there yet but I could really see us start to insource some of those apps development projects.

“Once you’ve got the infrastructure I think it’s great to have a dynamic in-house capability we can use and I think we’ll start to go there. We’re a fully outsourced model but I can see us thinking about those sorts of areas close to business agility we might bring back in. That will be a journey over the next couple of years.”

Social security

The other themes on the agenda and the horizon Clark and Heathrow are security and enterprise social networking tools, which Harding described as “an important strategic move for enabling this business going forwards but we’re only right at the start of our journey on that”.

Security, both physical and cyber, is of critical importance and Clarks says that over the last two years he has increased the airport’s focus on this area.

“We have a whole programme of activity we’ve been driving through to really refresh and increase our capability around information security and the risks introduced by technology,” Clark says.

“It’s a real focus for us and I would say it’s going to continue to be. No matter what we do, there just seems to be more coming so we’re going to have to continue to invest our time and energy in this.

“Security is an ever-changing beast you’re chasing constantly.”