Gatwick CIO Michael Ibbitson interview - Connected for take-off

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.

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