by Tony Westbrook

Manchester Airport CIO Martin Smith on building the group’s IT backbone

Feb 06, 2011
Data CenterIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Dr Martin Smith’s office in Olympic­ House looks over the taxiways at Manchester Airport’s Terminal Three. From here he could, should he choose, spend his day observing the hundreds of aircraft movements that take place every day at this, the largest airport in the UK outside the London region.

The airport’s owner, Manchester Airports Group (MAG), is now the largest UK-owned airport group. It is jointly owned by the 10 authorities of Greater Manchester and consists of four airports — Manchester Airport itself as well as Humberside, East Midlands and Bournemouth. The company­ serves over 29 million passengers a year of which the vast majority, some 19 million last year, pass through Manchester Airport. Critically, the group has remained profitable in the last three challenging years.

In excess of 20,000 people work on site in Manchester, but MAG’s entire employee count is around 2,600, of which a few hundred are in core management roles. A further 50,000 or so jobs are in associated or dependant businesses in the region, so a lot of what Smith and his team does impacts on companies and people well beyond­ the company’s own payroll.

Smith is MAG’s director of group technology and innovation, and reports to the company’s group finance director Ken Duncan. In his role Smith wears several­ hats, the most important one being as the effective CIO of the organisation. A service-managed structure underpins Smith’s department and responsibilities, and his key reports take responsibility for change facilitation and service management res­pectively.

Smith sees the role of his dep­artment as being to facilitate change in line with MAG’s business objectives. To this aim, he believes technology should be seen as no more than the tool to achieve these objectives. It therefore follows that he and his team need be the ones asking the awkward questions of vendors and service providers to ensure the best possible solutions are implemented.

Senior technologist “Mine isn’t an IT director role,” Smith clarifies, although part of his job is to be the technology guru, able to provide answers about technology and its application when needed. “I’m the company’s senior technologist, meaning I can provide a broad view on the feasibility of changes involving technology,” he says.

“I constantly have to understand what is going to happen within the business,” Smith explains. Simple to say, but this is no small requirement in a sector which has been volatile over recent years. Unprecedented growth in budget passenger flights followed by global recession, Icelandic ash clouds and the ever-present spectre of terror­ism have all been factors to consider during the seven years of Smith’s watch.

He regards the working relationship between him, Duncan, and other members of the executive committee as a key part of his success in managing and planning for all these over this period.

And make no mistake — this is a complex­ and varied business for IT. At any time Smith’s department will be dealing with a wide range of business services in airport­ operations, property development and management, car parking, security, engineering and motor transport. In addition over 200 companies require various servi­ces, and most importantly there are the passengers and customers at the heart of the business.

“It’s like running a small town,” says Smith.

The watchwords for developing an IS solution that keeps the company’s internal cost base to a minimum are resilience and dealing with a controllable number of key suppliers.

Today MAG’s systems and services fall into three main clusters (website and e-commerce, airport operations, and back office), although Smith admits that some things still don’t quite fit into these categories — such is the nature of a complex organisation of this kind.

Firstly there is the website and its assoc­iated­ e-commerce activity — critical for customer information and for car park booking, which is supported by IBM WebSphere. This also links to MAG’s intranet and email, messaging and collaboration systems based on Lotus Notes.

The second area of activity centres around site airport operations. Unusually in this industry, a single database holds flight data for all of the company’s four airports, and this data is used in many places, such as to manage invoice flows to airlines and to supply information to customer-facing website and passenger displays.

Originally, in the 1990s, this product was developed internally but it has now been transferred to an independent company, F S Walker Hughes, which already has ­installations at many airports worldwide.

Finally back office ERP activity forms the backbone of management information systems. In this case MAG is using an Oracle E-business Release 12 ‘vanilla’ implementation which replaced legacy data systems.

Oracle is also used for Business Intelligence, with a data warehouse taking data on terminal traffic, runway movements, bags handled and flight delays, as well as passenger survey feedback to be able to generate performance information against a range of indicators.

Smith arrived at MAG in 2004, first as Head of Group IS before taking on his wider current role in 2007. “My early task was to pull together the first formal information services strategy for the group,” he recalls. “It was very simply to select systems and services that meet current needs and enable future opportunities, and also to look at processes and see how we could optimise and automate them.”

He believes IS is a significant contributor to MAG’s bottom line. “We are looking for income wherever possible by selling services to airlines, retailers and other companies at the airports,” he says.

Top of Smith’s to-do list in 2004 was the need to consolidate systems and services and roll out the same ERP solution across all four airports.

Smith’s other early achievement was to add momentum to the adoption of the ITIL service management model approach, bringing its governance processes into the heart of the organisation. This has proved especially helpful for an organisation which deals with a large number of customers, suppliers and stakeholders.

As far as maintaining legacy systems is concerned, Smith knows that his asset and building management systems need to be upgraded at some point to improve management features and build in more front-end features such as GIS, but he believes that it is inevitable that any complex organis­ation will have to manage a range of systems, including some legacy ones. Generally, he suggests, these legacy systems only exist when they continue to perform their jobs well.

As you might expect, Smith is very foc­used on information and data flows, as he believes this is where the real value of his department’s activities can be harvested,­ and in many cases this is where older systems need some upgrading to provide ade­quate data to use to maximum effect.

In a perfect world, Smith would like to be able to track any customer’s progress through his airports from car park to departure gate and back, so that the company can better understand how they behave and ­offer business services that suit and exploit these behaviours to maximum effect.

Smith’s other tips for success in this sector? “Be on top of the cost base, anticipate what might be needed next; develop scalable responses to problems and build in resilience,” he says.

On that last point, having dev­eloped scalable resources operating across multiple airport sites means the group is well place for airport acquisition in the future should the opportunity arise.

This remains a possibility: the company was involved in negotiations for Gatwick when it was sold off by BAA last year and Smith’s department was involved in considerable work to look at how such an acquisition might be implemented from an IT point of view.

On the question of cloud computing and virtualisation, Smith believes it is necessary to ask some key questions first of any new technology opportunity.

“If it increases costs why would I virtualise? Three years ago when we looked at virtualisation we asked why would we?” he recalls. “But today the costs and benefits of something like Windows Server R2 look very different and so we are using this opportunity of change to virtualise.”

It is a perfect example of Smith’s approach, which is always to look at how he can leverage an existing process of change for any additional benefit, and to allow technology to be the servant of clear business objectives.

“Exploit the change points and be careful with your money,” he says.

See also: Manchester Airport CIO Martin Smith on information sharing