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Wings of change

Wings of change

Auckland International Airport expects to increase its passenger volume of 13 million a year, to 20 million by 2025.

Ensuring prompt responses and smooth management of everything from a major airline emergency through to a blocked toilet, is the function of the airport's operations centre. It is a role -- or combination of roles -- that demands well-functioning communications and information technology.

Over a year ago, the service response technology at the airport was less than satisfactory. CIO Tony Wickstead compares the then state of the operations centre's communications to "pre-glasnost Russia".

A mishmash of telephony and radio devices was splayed across the desks with tangled cords. An operator with an instrument clasped to each ear, relaying information between callers, or scooting from one end of the room to the other to field a new call was a common sight.

The operations centre involves airport staff, as well as the presence of Police, St John's Ambulance, Customs and the Fire Service.

Staff had learned to be efficient within this environment. "You'd wonder how some of those people executed what they did," says Wickstead, who spoke at the Cisco Networkers conference in Brisbane in September.

Wings of change

Response to different incidents or facets of a single incident would be handled by different processes with different owners. "It was a very challenging place, not only from a communications technology point of view, but how the calls were managed from a process perspective.

"That was our starting point for saying we had to change the environment," says Wickstead.

"The vision we came up with was of a central point of response. We've still got our multiple stakeholders. We've still got the multiple types of calls coming in, but now we have one contact centre and we have one area of the company owning the events and incidents."

A redesign of the communications technology has been a crucial part of this, he says. Communications, both voice and data, are handled through a single IP network, using Cisco's Unified Communications. Layered on top of this are Cisco's UC Contact Centre Express, with incoming calls allocated to the right people, and the Internet Protocol Interoperability and Collaboration System, which can handle appropriate escalation of action when needed and pulls disparate communications channels together into single virtual call groups.

Each operator receives calls through a headset and can patch one caller through to another so they can talk directly.

The system collects statistics in real time, so management is immediately aware of the number of calls that have come in, how long they took to handle and how many, if any, were dropped. This alerts them to any short or long-term stress points, allowing resources to be boosted or realigned.

"That was fascinating to really understand the types of calls we do get in and the amount of abandoned calls, and why are we getting them abandoned," says Wickstead.

"That understanding has been critical to help our customer services manager to change the way she schedules and manages her people, to make sure she has the right [number of] people on at the right time for the types of calls.

"This is the vision that's still on track today that we're still working on and driving forward," he says. "We're not at the end game yet, but we've progressed this view significantly from where we started."

The development was planned from the start as an answer to a business challenge, he says. "It is crucial that we defined outcomes in terms of the business, not the technology."

Pitching to the top

"The pitch I made early on to the CEO said, 'this is a people project, it has got nothing to do with technology'." There is a certain irony, he reflects, in a CIO telling the CEO he doesn't care what the technology is, but rather needs top-level support, "because this is about people".

It's not always best to have a business project substantially driven out of IT, he acknowledged at the Brisbane presentation. "That was something I worked around with some sensitivity. Hence those discussions with the chief executive first, then with the general manager of operations, saying this is what I want to do, getting their buy-in very early and getting them to understand.

"But that's an ongoing challenge. It is challenging making sure the business understands where you are trying to go. They need to tell us where they want to be going and if it's not coming from them, you've got to be gentle in the way you try to coerce them along."

Within the change management plan, the airport company devolved responsibility for detail such as room layout to the people who had to work there in the front line. "That's the most important part of the project, without their input you will fail."

Continual communication in the people sense rather than the technology sense is also crucial, says Wickstead. "There will be a lot of change in people's roles. It affects people's livelihood, people start wondering if they've still got jobs and questions come up." These have to be answered as quickly as possible.

A farewell to glasnost

Clearly, there were efficiencies created in the work environment. Just putting in an IVR system to automatically handle the most straightforward public queries, such as flight arrival times, saved a measurable 17 percent. "That gives two hours a day back to three people. Do we still need those three people? Yes we do. We put them back in the terminal to [supply] added value affecting the customer experience.

"We know we're gaining time back, because we can measure it now, we can manage it. In the pre-glasnost Russia environment, you couldn't manage it, because you couldn't measure it."

Wickstead learned about managing service delivery in a variety of roles for international companies such as NCR and Kodak in New Zealand and Australia. Prior to taking up the post at Auckland Airport, he was an advisor in the ranks of consultancy Ernst & Young with an IT and business focus.

"My skill set is more in service delivery and less in technology. I'm not a strongly technical person," he says. "My skills are in understanding business and technology and bringing the two together."

He manages a small team of 15 people and reports to the chief financial officer. He was attracted to the job due to the opportunity of working in a "vibrant, exciting business in an ever-changing environment" where many complex processes interact.

"It has become more of a challenge in such an environment to make sure the small ICT team can economically deliver to the business the capabilities that it needs. The recession has meant "increasing focus on cost efficiencies and how to do things smarter", he says.

The current stage of the operations-centre streamlining represents only the end of the first stage, says Wickstead. The next major project is the implementation of a service management software suite, based on ITSM, a FrontRange product.

"We are always challenged by the architecture of the airport and the way its multiple systems interrelate," he says. Other priorities include improved document management and an increasing emphasis on passenger self-service. This will apply to boarding and in due course to Customs and Ministry of Agriculture checks.

"The airlines are driving this," he says, "but we must respond to it."

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