Smooth take-off

There must be days when James Burke feels a lot like Viktor Navorski, the lead character in Steven Spielberg’s latest movie “The Terminal”. In the film, Navorski, played by Tom Hanks, lives through every traveller’s nightmare. Through an accident of fate, he is unable to leave Kennedy Airport – for days, stretching to weeks, stretching to months.

An accident of fate also caused Jim Burke to be caught up in the world of airport terminals, only his stay has lasted a little longer – 15 years and counting. It all started quite innocently back in 1989, when he showed up at London’s Heathrow Airport, expecting to advise management on a product. To his surprise, he found himself in the midst of a job interview, which landed him the senior IT post, a position that he held for the next 12 years.

As Heathrow’s CIO, Burke earned his wings by retrofitting ‘common use’ systems into Terminals One, Two and Three, increasing passenger throughput by 15 per cent without adding a single brick to the existing facilities. ‘Common use’ enables the airport to maximize its resources by making its facilities available to any of its carriers or tenants.

You’d think that 12 years of airport terminals would have been enough for one lifetime, but Burke was not done yet. In 2000, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) was in the early stages of a $4.4 billion construction project to build the new Terminal One at Pearson International Airport. The GTAA decided it needed to bring in someone with the right experience to head IT. Burke had the perfect credentials. And of course Toronto couldn’t be that much different from London…

“They told me it only snowed for two weeks of the year. What did I know?” he said.

Still, the job was too enticing to resist, and so he packed his bags and made the leap across the pond. What he found when he got to the other side was a job even more challenging than he had imagined.

Overhauling the IT team

Burke inherited a small IT department that wasn’t doing much more than “cleaning and polishing the admin computers”. Staff were exhausted, keeping open some very old technology for flight information display in Terminal Two and the old Terminal One.

Given a couple of months to assess the situation, Burke soon began forming the new IT division out of existing components: partly e-business staff from the commercial area, partly the existing IT department, and partly electronic systems staff.

“We needed to provide databases, to provide structure, and to provide standards. So we were in a start-up position, which was fine,” said Burke. “And we had a focus – the target date for the new terminal – which is always a good thing.”

The pieces of the IT department puzzle fell into place rather handily. Burke acknowledged that he hasn’t had to recruit a single direct-report since he took over the job. “They were there and I found them, or they found me,” he said. Today, the IT department, which numbers around 60 – not all of them employed directly by the GTAA – is considered one of the best in the industry, evidenced by the fact that other airports are showing up at Pearson to see what the team has done. And they’re leaving well satisfied.

Establishing a governance mechanism

With the IT team coming together, the next step in getting IT on the right track was to quickly set up a governance mechanism. To that end, an IT Steering Group was created, which included all of the GTAA’s vice-presidents.

“The message that I was trying to communicate was that any change or activity within a corporation like the GTAA has an impact on IT – or should have an impact on IT,” said Burke. “The IT Steering Group gave me an opportunity to do some education of my peers. And it gave us an opportunity to show that there needed to be debate about how things should be done, as opposed to simply worrying about what needed to be done. It was the how that was quite important.”

Another important issue was the need to establish due process in preparing a charter of what needed to be done. It was decided that everything had to go through the Steering Group, and the Steering Group had to be a forum for debate, so that everyone could hear each other’s ideas.

Finally, a Project Management Office was set up, which provided guidelines as to how things were to be done. Documents had to be completed before beginning any work on the project. And the budget had to match the documents.

A change of thinking

Reorganizing the IT team and putting a governance mechanism in place weren’t the only challenges that Burke confronted when he arrived in Toronto. Constructing Terminal One was a monumental task, and not surprisingly, he found that everyone’s focus was on the building itself. But the project had gotten to the point where some key issues needed to be faced, and Burke soon found that he had to take a different view of things.

“I came over thinking terminal and I had to very rapidly start thinking airport,” he said. “The thing that struck me in the first two months was that Terminal One wasn’t being linked to the other buildings. The other terminals, the admin building, various hangars and so forth hadn’t been incorporated into the whole scheme.”

Burke saw the need for a linked communications infrastructure that treated the whole airport as an integrated, functional set of buildings that would allow data to flow back and forth among them. So his first priority became integrating communications, a decision that seemed a bit odd to some, as it was not focussed on the Terminal One project.

Looking back, however, Burke believes his decision was the correct one. “As things panned out, it’s proved absolutely fantastic in the way that the overall technology works,” he explained.

Building the campus area network

The first steps in building the campus area network were to determine what standards would be used, how to go about turning 14 different types of networks onto one common networking infrastructure for wired or wireless data, voice and video, and how to make the new combined network ubiquitous, secure and fully redundant.

A key consideration in all of this was not to use anything that would “frighten the horses, so to speak”, as Burke put it.

“There are always people who wish you to use a completely wireless environment, for example. But what I wanted was modern technology that would be able to be built on by my successors,” he said. “This is not a smash and grab raid. It isn’t just for the opening of the new terminal. It’s something which is going to be lifed over 10 to 15 years. So we’re trying to intersect the curve of technology and price.”

In the end, a carrier-class optical-fibre backbone was selected. This means that the GTAA won’t have to provide cables to telecom carriers coming into the airport. The carriers will come in over the pre-existing infrastructure, which will make life a lot easier in terms moves and changes.

“Having one high-value, high-quality communications link around the patch is definitely the correct way to do it, because then you’ve got somebody managing scalability and optimising the activities that are necessary,” noted Burke. “As we expand over the next few years, we will bring forward exactly the same infrastructure for various activities that we have laid down now. New and existing vendors will know exactly what the standards are, and that’s a piece of work we won’t have to cater for in their bidding or in their execution.”

The biggest debate around communications was over the decision to use Voice over IP technology. In the end, it turned out to be a fairly straightforward piece of work which produced excellent results. Pearson’s IP network, based on technology from Cisco Systems, has been described as a showcase of some of the industry’s most advanced IP-based technologies.

Bringing ‘common use’ to Pearson

Having seen the benefits of ‘common use’ systems at Heathrow, Burke knew that it was the right approach for Pearson. In conjunction with the new communications infrastructure, ‘common use’ would enable the airport’s 65 airlines to easily move and reconfigure their booths, passenger-processing gates and other operations. It would also offer similar convenience to other tenants.

In order to get its ‘common use’ system off the ground in time for the official opening of Terminal One this past April, the GTAA had to select the right partner. According to Burke, there were two key criteria in the selection process. One was price, although that wasn’t the overriding factor, and the other was the fit between the vendor’s approach and the needs of the airlines, who would be the biggest users of the technology.

“We wanted a partner who would bring forward modern standards that would enable the airlines to use their own imaginations and deploy their own techniques to capitalize on these new facilities and to save costs,” said Burke.

The GTAA worked with the airlines to find out which technology they preferred, without the cost element getting in the way. As it turned out, the best approach, from the functional point of view of the airlines, was also the lowest cost option, so the selection became an easy one.

The chosen vendor was SITA Inc. of Atlanta, Georgia. The company’s approach is browser-based, requiring agents and customers to look at the same sorts of interfaces. SITA provided IP telephony integration with passenger-processing applications, helping make the airport’s IP phones far more useful than traditional ones, enabling them to function as data terminals for accessing and processing passenger information.

Introduction of the Common Use Passenger Processing System means that all computers and baggage-tag and boarding-pass printers will belong to the GTAA. The airlines simply have to connect to their respective reservation systems through the IP network.

WestJet takes advantage

An example of the convenience of a ‘common use’ approach can be seen in the case of WestJet. At the beginning of this year, the airline decided to move from its facilities at Hamilton International Airport and set up operations at Pearson. The plan was to move into Terminal One, alongside Air Canada. For various reasons that couldn’t happen, and they ended up in Terminal Two, with offices elsewhere.

“We had to move them to a completely separate terminal. But because we used exactly the same standards and technology design in both terminals, the move seemed almost seamless,” noted Burke. “They plugged into our campus ports and overnight they created a wide area network without having to lay a yard of cable. To me, that was a phenomenal thing. It was a magnificent piece of imagination by WestJet.”

Of course a lot of the groundwork for the move had already been done by the GTAA’s IT team, and by the airport’s communications technology partners, particularly Cisco and Bell. But it was the ‘common use’ philosophy that enabled it to happen.

Fine-tuning the system

Pearson’s ‘common use’ processing equipment is being looked after by a call centre that is both dynamic and intelligent. The call centre fields all technology-related calls, whether they are for radio, which is crucial, or for the airport’s various other technology components.

After a few months in operation, the call centre is already providing some useful statistics that are enabling the GTAA to become more proactive in determining where to concentrate its efforts in order to make everybody’s life smoother.

“The call centre has given us quite good statistics and metering, improving our ability to see how we can better serve the whole population of this organization,” said Burke. “For example, we are able to react much better to the needs of the people who use our kiosks – both passengers and agents.”

Demonstrating the role of IT

Reflecting on the challenges he has faced as head of IT for the GTAA, Burke said that the toughest part of the job has been demonstrating internally that IT has got a major role to play as an enabler.

He recalled that when he first arrived, it took three or four months to break down the doors to get to the construction manager’s table in order to discuss certain aspects of Terminal One’s construction that were time-sensitive and critical to IT.

“He had no idea who I was or why I was there. I had to explain to him that we have needs. Putting that across in a shorter space of time would have been ideal,” he said. “So just getting to the table in time is the important part. And I think we’ve done that.”

Despite the enormous complexity of preparing Terminal One for take-off, in the end things went quite smoothly.

“Remarkably, we opened the new terminal without too much angst,” said Burke. “I really had nothing to do for the last month, other than walking around making sure things were coming along as planned. That’s a tribute to the design, I think.”

Does the successful launch of the first phase of Terminal One mean Burke will finally be able to escape the world of airport terminals? Absolutely not. In two years, Pearson plans to open the next phase of the building, and a similar enhancement project is going on in Terminal Three. You could say he’s pretty much back to square one again.

So Burke remains a sort of Super Viktor Navorski. But looking on the bright side, if Spielberg ever thinks of doing a sequel, boy, do we have the right guy!

David Carey is a veteran journalist specializing in information technology and IT management. Based in Toronto, he is editor of CIO Canada.

Pearson by the numbers

– Toronto Pearson International Airport is Canada’s busiest, handling 24.7 million passengers in 2003.

– The new IP-based network will include more than 100 networking switches, more than 1000 IP phones and more than 1000 wireless access points.

– Terminal One has about 450 flight and baggage information displays, 50 express check-in machines, and about 300 check-in, gate and baggage workstations for employees.

– At the completion of Phase Four, Toronto Pearson will be capable of handling 50 million passengers a year

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

Featured Articles

ADaPT connects employers with highly skilled young workers

Help wanted. That’s what many tech companies across Canada are saying, and research shows...

Unlocking Transformation: IoT and Generative AI Powered by Cloud

Amidst economic fluctuations and disruptive forces, Canadian businesses are steering through uncharted waters. To...

Related Tech News

Tech Jobs

Our experienced team of journalists and bloggers bring you engaging in-depth interviews, videos and content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives.

Tech Companies Hiring Right Now