1 November 2017 Interview

Alison FitzGerald, London City Airport

London City Airport is a small airport with big ambitions – and it sees technology as the passport to success

When artificial intelligence is being used to determine which stands aircraft should park at, analyse strange patterns of behaviour caught on CCTV, and optimise processes from bag drop to baggage claim, conversations about robots taking over jobs start feeling very real. But London City Airport, which is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary, is in growth mode – and with work just starting to realise its £370m development programme, it’s set to create more than 2,000 new jobs by 2025.

But although aviation is perceived to be as innovative as industries come, London City Airport is pretty unusual for the amount of technology it has adopted in a relatively short period of time. And according to Alison FitzGerald, the airport’s chief operating officer and the executive responsible for driving most of the advances, it’s because it’s had to.

The simple fact is that London City was built for far fewer passengers than it attracts now. Last year it saw 4.5 million of them; in 1987, the figure was 133,000.

Such a growth in popularity could have spelt the airport’s downfall. It’s one of the country’s fastest growing airports in part because of its reputation for speed among time-poor business travellers working in Canary Wharf and the City. It’s 20:15 proposition states that passengers can arrive 20 minutes before departure and still make their flight, and they’ll be on their way home again 15 minutes after landing.

“When I joined in 2014, the development plan was on the horizon and we’d seen some growth never seen previously around our summer passenger numbers,” FitzGerald says. “If we didn’t change, our passengers would be queuing out the door.”

Technology was the answer

So FitzGerald and her colleagues have turned to technology “as the foundations for growth”, automating as much as they can to improve the passenger experience. Combined with the development plan which includes building seven new aircraft stands, a new taxi-way to maximise aircraft movements and an extended terminal, it will support a further 2 million passengers a year.

Answering the first, immediate challenge of check-in queues wasn’t rocket science – it meant putting in self bag drops. But since 2014, the airport has also spent “a lot of time and money” to achieve “one of the fastest processing security implementations in the UK”.

It has worked with Greenwich start-up CrowdVision to install camera technology that tracks all passengers throughout the airport using images of the top of their heads, so they know exactly how long it takes them to get through check-in and through security. This means they can deploy resources should there be any bottlenecks – or analyse performance when any changes are made.

“It’s not just about it being quicker. We need to be compliant. And we need to know what the passenger experience is. It’s about taking all that data and making sure things are as optimum as they can be,” explains FitzGerald.

The airport is also currently building an app so that passengers can plan their journey before they arrive at the airport – working with external partners so that instead of just finding out how long it might take to get from your office to the airport, it will tell you the total time it will take you to get through to your gate.

And to improve efficiency on stand allocation – when different aircraft types use different ones – it is again turning to AI, running a competition with Innovate UK to find the right partner to create the right solution. “Start-ups give us the chance to look at more innovative opportunities,” she adds.

Remote control

But when it comes to sticking a flag in the ground for the airport’s digital ambitions, its new digital control tower, which will be operational by 2019, is the first of its kind in the UK.

Rather than a traditional building with viewing deck, cameras on top of a digital mast will transmit all the necessary images of the airfield to the airport’s air traffic controllers who will be sitting more than 90 miles away in Hampshire.

There, backed up by the critical national infrastructure owned by NATS – the UK’s main air traffic service provider – they will get the full 360-degree view of the airfield across 14 screens without having to get up to look behind them. Additional data points for each aircraft will also be overlayed on the screens, so that they don’t need to look at separate systems. Powerful zooms will allow them to focus on anything that shouldn’t be there, while the camera technology will identify helicopters, drones, lasers and even birds.

Clearly the technology can outperform human capability, but FitzGerald says: “It’s all about enhancing what the air traffic controller can see, not replacing what they do.”

She’s sure other UK airports will be looking closely at how the new system performs, but however much London City wanted to invest in the latest technology, there was also a strong business case to do so: when the new stands are built, the aircraft will all park nose in and their tail fins would impinge the view from the old tower.

And, as with all the developments at the airport, FitzGerald emphasises that technology is only as good as the business challenge it answers. “It’s about making sure you’re using technology, selecting it and implementing it for value, not because it’s shiny and new.”

Involving employees

And how does FitzGerald ensure that employees are on board with the changes? For her it’s as simple as involving them.

She refers to the implementation of Avtura, the handheld technology staff use airside to track performance and ensure aircraft are turned around in 30 minutes. “When we first trialled it, it didn’t really work for the guys on the ramp. When we changed it and put in all their requirements – now that’s a product they want to use and can use.”

The same is true on the introduction of a new baggage reconciliation system, which overhauled what was a very manual process. The team working on the project comprised one “technology guy” and the rest were the people doing the work on the ground. “They own it,” she says.

“It isn’t a bunch of technologists rocking up saying they’ll love it. Because they won’t. It’s really important for us from a change management point of view to involve whoever is going to be the recipient of the product – and that they know what the business issue is and what we’re trying to resolve.”

Maximising potential

Of course, there are factors affecting growth – both positively and negatively – outside of London City’s immediate control.

With the former chairman of Crossrail, Terry Morgan, now chairman at the airport, London City has called for the high-speed line, which practically goes past its door, to stop there.

“As Heathrow becomes more and more full, and they concentrate on transatlantic flights, that connectivity gives us the opportunity to operate the European destinations,” FitzGerald explains. “It should be a complementary configuration, so there’s a huge amount of opportunity. Why wouldn’t you build a Crossrail station near a main airport in the city?”

But with the heavy concentration of European flights already at the airport – largely due to constraints in the size of aircraft that can land there – Brexit poses a significant challenge to London City’s operations.

“We need a means of operating post-Brexit that doesn’t exist for the aviation sector today,” says FitzGerald. “The closer we get to Brexit, the more uncertainty there will be from a market point of view, and a passenger point of view. They need to know that those tickets that they’re buying are going to be for a valid journey and that that journey will happen.”

But as the airport celebrates its 30th anniversary by getting expansion work underway, FitzGerald is confident the team at London City are building the airport of the future. And technology is providing the foundations for it. 

Alison FitzGerald spoke as part of a panel discussion on technology as an enabler at this year's CBI Annual Conference.

Join the discussion