by Mark Chillingworth

Gatwick Airport’s Stuart Birrell on the strategy for independence

Nov 29, 2010
IT LeadershipIT StrategyMedia and Entertainment Industry

One year ago Britain’s second biggest airport was sold by its parent company BAA. Divestments are always complicated business for IT affairs, but demerging an airport has additional complications.

In August 2008 the Competition Commission found that travellers were suffering as a result of BAA owning all three major­ airports serving London and the south east – Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted – and insisted that BAA sold the West Sussex hub.

Stuart Birrellwas drafted in to shore up the airport’s prospective IT strategy.

“I was brought in as an interim two weeks after the sale was announced,” he says. “There was a realisation in BAA and at the Competition Commission that there was no one here for IT and they needed someone to look at what we do.”

Some described BAA’s attitude towards Gatwick as ‘Heathrow Terminal 6’, and indeed it hadn’t received the IT investment an airport serving a capital city requires.

As Christmas 2008 approached the buyers wanted a sale prospectus. “They needed­ a view of what the IT could look like,” Birrell says. “What came out of the sale process was the fear of another Terminal 5 moment,” he reveals of the major delays that struck British Airways and BAA when the new Heathrow terminal had opened a year earlier.

“By mid-February 2009 we were in front of bidders with business plans, so I had to build a capability that had no stranded costs and to persuade the bidders that IT was an issue, but not too big an issue.”

Amicable split Eventually, Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), which owns 75 per cent of London City Airport, acquired Gatwick for £1.5bn in October 2009 and gained European app­roval soon after.

As soon the GIP deal went through Birrell and his IT team had to really swing into action and he had already set up an agreed process with BAA.

“I was left with a degree of autonomy by BAA to come up with a strategy,” Birrell says of the period between joining Gatwick as a BAA employee and the divestment.

“We have a good relationship with [BAA CIO] Philip Langsdale, he is going through a similar journey there to outsource and rationalise. It’s worth parking the ego ­because it saves a lot of money and stress and I’ve seen a number of separations where the relationship is good on both sides.” Birrell still works closely with BAA, which at present maintains the networks that support Gatwick.

“Separating the applications requires a separate infrastructure to be created for the new applications to be installed in. Once all of the applications have been separated the physical and logical links to BAA will be finally separated. In the mean time, the separated applications are being ­migrated over to Gatwick, but the infrastructure, active directory, security and hosting are still with BAA.”

Separation is also an opportunity to renew­ the IT foundations and processes of an organisation. “GIP has a big thing about the culture and want to look after the people here and use best practices, so our role in IT is to give people the best tools.

“The role of IT was to be very much in the background. GIP wants to transform the passenger experience. The South Terminal was built in the 1950s, so their atti­tude is how can we improve the experience, and technology plays a part in that.”

Improvements are already beginning to become visible, the shuttle train platforms for transfer to the North Terminal have been renewed and significantly change the environment. Birrell has also been working with Norwegian Airlines, installing giant plasma screens behind the check-in desks of the Scandinavian airline. Each screen has a rolling slide-show of images of the destinations and the airline’s logo. It is a simple technical change, but makes a striking difference.

For more, click on the links below:

Gatwick Airport’sStuart Birrell on building IT from the ground up

Gatwick Airport’sStuart Birrell on creating a cutting-edge crew