by Mark Chillingworth

Gatwick Airport’s Stuart Birrell on building IT from the ground up

Nov 29, 2010
IT LeadershipIT StrategyMedia and Entertainment Industry

As transformational CIO for Gatwick Airport, Stuart Birrell’s main task is to provide the company with the IT systems it needs to operate independently from its former owner BAA. He is also responsible for making better use of the mountain of data the airport generates.

He has begun a project with the airport’s air traffic control to increase the amount of flight data that is shared with the airport’s IT consumers. His user constituency consists of 2500 Gatwick airport staff and a total 25,000 users who work for the multitude of organisations that operate businesses out of Gatwick.

These range from retailersright through to in-flight caterers. Birrell’s strategy is to improve the data that these organisations receive so that they can operate more efficiently, this in-turn improves the efficiency of the airport and therefore the customer experience. This ultimately results in achieving the aims of the airport’s owners.

“Baggage-handling agencies or caterers will no longer will have to wait at a gate for an aircraft to arrive. If we can inform them of a delay they can go to another gate and carry out their tasks there.

“We have a shopping centre on-site with 17 million guaranteed passengers passing though every year, so from a retail point of view it is amazing that Gatwick knows when the passengers will be there and what their socio-economic classification is. We can capture that data and help retailers make decisions on it.

“For example we have four flights a day to the Middle-East; the passengers on those flights are not stag-weekend type of travellers. Statistics show that there has been a nine per cent increase in passenger numbers from the Middle-East and that they spend three times as much as travellers from other parts of the world. Virgin Atlantic flies to the Caribbean from Gatwick – these travellers don’t buy a shirt from Next.

“It’s exciting stuff. The question is how we as an IT team help integrate that data.”

Birrell is passionate about the new IT vision for Gatwick and it all ties in closely with the business case for the airport.

“We cannot challenge Heathrow for volume. Airlines want to go to Heathrow because of its transit hub opportunities, so Stansted is a bigger competitor,” he explains. But the strategy is paying off: British Airways has already added more long haul routes to the Sussex airport.

“Extra routes are great for staff morale, but we have a limited number of slots for airlines,” he says.

SAP in the back On a more routine IT level, Birrell is currently implementing a new SAP enterprise resource planning system into Gatwick.

“Ultimately 50 per cent of the applications will be either shut down or subsumed into the SAP solution. We don’t need a lot of complex legacy applications as we are now a single site. This will simplify the IT operation hugely.”

Birrell hopes the move to SAP will also pull organisational data together, which at present is very “fragmented”. His IT renewal will also see the airport upgrade from a 2002 editions of Lotus Notes and ­Citrix. “These make our user experience very frustrating at the moment,” he says.

He is also consolidating and improving the infrastructure for Gatwick’s IT. “The datacentres are fragmented; there are two core datacentres and 18 rooms around the airport campus that have substantial critical server installations. That is damned expensive to maintain, feed and water. The strategy is to simplify the estate and we will outsource the non-critical elements to a third-party datacentre.

“I can then centralise the hardware we require to the core datacentres and cut application costs.” Again this rationalisation strategy is closely aligned to the business strategy of Gatwick Airport. IT runs on two per cent of airport’s overall turnover, which Birrell describes as high when compared to the one per cent of turnover budget­ that the airlines typically operate at.

“We will get to the better end of the airport world, but the diversity of services we have to offer is demanding on us. I am aiming for two to three per cent,” he says.

For more, click on the links below:

Gatwick Airport’sStuart Birrell on the strategy for independence

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