Ready for take-off

Each year British Airways (BA) holds a Technology Fair at its plush Waterside headquarters, tucked away in a quieter corner of the world’s busiest airport, Heathrow. Unlike many companies, BA likes to showcase its IT prowess, and the fauir provides an opportunity to both highlight the achievements of its IT organisation and give BA staff the chance to see the role technology will play in the company’s future.

Opening his year’s fair in November, BA CEO Willie Walsh was keen to stress a simple message: amid the cut-throat competition in international flight, BA could differentiate itself through the quality of its service and the efficiency of its operations.

But optimising the efficiency of BA’s operation is no small undertaking – its punctuality record alone for flights leaving Heathrow is among the worst in the business. However, BA anticipates that the move into the state-of-the-art Terminal 5 (T5), which is due to open in March 2008, will remove some of the barriers to efficiency. And the IT department, under CIO Paul Coby, will be critical to the success of that move.

The shift to T5, says Colby, is "the biggest thing we’ve done" as an IT department. BA will transfer all of its flights, currently split between three separate terminals, into the new terminal. To support that it is installing 145 new systems and 600 kilometres of network cabling, connecting 9,000 separate devices, 2,000 PCs and 1,600 IP telephones. That will give BA the capacity to stream 30 million passengers a year through check-in and boarding – with the minimum of queuing.

The complexity of that new operation has meant that IT has been involved in T5 since the drawing board stage, says Coby. "We needed to understand what the processes were from end-to-end: what processes support the passenger from the moment that they buy their ticket, to the moment they board. If we can get that right, we can get the planes off on time."

Between October 2006 and March 2007, BA intends to bring new systems online at a rate of one or two a week.. The aim is to get the complete IT infrastructure up and running by April 2007, to allow six months for testing, and a further six for "shakedown", in readiness for the opening. "It’s a massive integration challenge," admits Coby.

To meet that challenge, Coby is implanting some cutting-edge practices, such as ‘lean development’, a technique borrowed from manufacturing industry. ‘Lean’ is an attitude about connecting with real problems, he says, making sure that information technology is involved only where it is needed and ensuring the results produce benefits for the end user.

"Of course, getting our staff to understand the strategy is also very important," he says. "But nobody gets excited by process."

The IT fair may help with this. With its £D renderings of the new terminal, models and demonstrations about the new building, staff are given the opportunity to glimpse the role technology will play in the future of air travel. "Sometimes it helps to expose the ideas," Coby observes wrily. 

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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