BAA hits flight speed with BPM

Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 had been touted as “the most technologically advanced in the world” just days before its opening in March 2008. So when systems immediately floundered, resulting in thousands of temporarily lost bags and furious passengers, it was unsurprising that Heathrow owner BAA’s ability to manage IT projects was called into question.

This made it essential that the airport’s next major IT project was a success from day one, according to Eamonn Cheverton, an enterprise architect for BAA Heathrow. “Because we’re a national institution,” he explains, “every time we do something and get it wrong, we end up on national television or in the international news.”

This pressure on IT operations is made greater by the fact that if systems go down for more than two hours, the EU fines the company €250 million for every subsequent hour of downtime. “This is because we can singularly wreck European airspace,” Cheverton says.

The next major project was prompted by one of Heathrow’s most pressing long-term challenges. As one of the world’s busiest airports, Heathrow’s infrastructure is placed under constant strain by the sheer volume of planes passing through it.

The quick turnaround of aircraft from landing to take-off is therefore critical, but is challenged by the fact that much of Heathrow’s through traffic comprises long-haul flights. The precise arrival time of such flights is hard to predict, often due to prevailing winds over the Atlantic Ocean. “Every day this wrecks our flight plans,” Cheverton explains.

The exact arrival time of an aircraft cannot normally be confirmed until ten minutes prior to landing, when it appears on the airport’s own surveillance radar. This leaves only a short time to prepare turnaround processes such as refuelling and baggage transfer.

BAA chose to address these issues with a business process management system based on software from Pegasystems. The Pegasystems technology allows BAA to monitor the arrival and departure of aircraft – refuelling, baggage transfer, cleaning and passenger/crew change-over – in real-time, allowing airport staff to sequence and optimise these processes, and subsequently feed data back to air safety administrator Eurocontrol in Brussels.

One benefit of real-time management is that BAA has been able to write five ‘defcon settings’ for scenarios ranging from poor weather to a terrorist attack, in which the BPM system switches to a new set of rules guiding which resources and capabilities are needed to keep the airport running smoothly.

As a result of the new BPM solution, BAA Heathrow’s on-time departure rate has increase from 68% to 83%.

The amount passengers spend in the airport’s retail outlets, which represents about half of its annual revenue, has also increased, by £20 million per year, as the time they spend in duty-free zones is now optimised and the volume of flights per day has slightly increased.

The key to success, Cheverton claims, was the initial decision not to view the project as one specific to an international airport, but instead to adopt a case management model made familiar by customer relationship management (CRM). 

“We thought of it like a call centre, where someone phones up the call centre and we track the call through until we close the case,” he explains. Adopting this model allowed the company to adopt standard enterprise software, not the industry-specific tools that are typically considerably dearer, he adds.

Peter Done

Peter Done is managing director of Peninsula Business Services, the personnel and employment law consultancy he set up having already built a successful betting shop business.

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