Heathrow’s T5 set for take off

The 5,550 glass panels that adorn the pristine new main building at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 encase a world of contrasts. In the entrance level in July, workmen were still busily creating units that will be transformed into some of the world’s most alluring airport shops and restaurants by the time T5 opens in March 2008. Four floors down, though, the work is largely finished and the plain concrete walls resound to an activity that is just as feverish but which is almost completely unattended. The bustle here comes from suitcases being hurtled along conveyor belts; the bare concrete walls will stay that way. This is home to what the terminal operators characterise as “one of the hardest-working IT systems in the world”.

The baggage handling system at Terminal 5 threads through five levels of the main building, from check-in stations to subterranean holding stores. At peak loads, the system is capable of tracking 12,000 bar-coded items of luggage an hour, while ensuring that each bag arrives at the correct point on the 18 kilometres of conveyor belts – even allowing for last minute changes of boarding gates – and that every item has been security screened.

It is this combination of the volume of assets being tracked and the associated national security concerns that make the baggage system one of T5’s most mission-critical, says Nick Gaines, business critical systems director at airport operator BAA.

The baggage system is just one of hundreds of new IT systems being installed in Terminal 5, but it is a shining example of the kind of thinking that lies behind the IT implementation. The range of high-class retailers (which includes a new restaurant by Gordon Ramsay) may impress passengers, but the majority of the work that has gone into improving passengers’ pre-flight experience remains largely hidden.

In total, British Airways (which will move all of its operations in other Heathrow terminals to T5) is introducing 96 new self-service check-in kiosks, 2,000 desktops and 1,600 IP-enabled telephones all intended to improve customer service and speed passenger check-in. Here, IT is providing the foundation to deliver that step-change improvement, says Paul Coby, CIO at British Airways, which will run services from the terminal. It is the IT systems that “bring T5 alive”, he says.

BAA hands over the keys to the £4.3 billion state-of-the-art terminal to British Airways in September 2007, and the two have been working to ensure new IT infrastructure becomes a pillar of BA’s modernisation programme.

One example of the co-operation is the passenger security check process. Through the introduction of service-oriented architecture principles, BA has been able to integrate parts of its passenger systems with BAA’s IT. This means that BAA will get advance notice of flight schedules and anticipated passenger numbers, and will therefore be able to staff its security check areas appropriately.

Elsewhere, a site-wide WiFi network not only ensures that staff remain connected to the network, but third parties will be able to rent bandwidth from them and sell it on to travellers. Traditionally, airports offer WiFi access from just a single vendor, but T5 should have a number of providers competing to offer passengers the best service, says BAA’s Gaines.

It is hard to understate the importance of T5 to both BA and BAA: the airline desperately needs a modern hub to compete in a cutthroat market, and for BAA, T5 is an integral part of the plan to modernise the rest of Heathrow.

The significance of the project demands that all the technology “has to be able to evolve”, says British Airway’s Coby.

One example is check-in kiosks, which have had cameras built in, in case immigration authorities decide to introduce facial biometric verification at check-in. “Airport terminals have a 20- to 30-year lifespan,” he says. “Who knows what technology we will be running in them by then?”

Henry Catchpole

Henry Catchpole runs Inform Direct, a company records management software company which simplifies the process of dealing with Companies House. The business was set up in 2013.

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