Now Clear for Takeoff

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 07-01-2004

Jim Burke, vice president of information technology and telecommunications for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, doesn't come across as a maverick, but he has blazed a trail at three of the world's busiest airports with his common-use approach to IT infrastructure. The lessons he's learned translate to other shared-services business models, too.

CIO Insight: How did you first come to embrace the common-use model?

Well, I worked at Heathrow for 12 years and retrofitted that airport, which was a major undertaking. It was part of a reorganization of the competitive landscape at the time. Before that, it was very difficult for a newcomer to get in. Some airlines were allowed only three flights a day, all leaving from the same gate, within a few hours of one another. Other airlines had dozens of open gates. There was so much wasted space. So when I say that common use is common sense, I have seen just about as bad as it can get.

How does the common-use model change the way an airport does business?

The airline industry is more of a pure free market now than ever before. There are no barriers to entry. Demand can be matched to supply. But it's a very complex set of programs and algorithms to manage. You've got flight forecasts, slots, runway capacity, aircraft parking and then the airport process itself. So we have to be a lot more engrossed in handling customer requests than before, and that is a process that began well before we built the new terminal.

How do you keep things equitable among the different airlines, especially with Air Canada's dominance at Toronto Pearson?

We are in the customer management business. This is Air Canada's biggest hub, and it has to work well for them in order for the airline to be profitable. They are the biggest users of the network; they've even extended it into the back office. And there is a legal ruling that while Air Canada is in bankruptcy protection we must offer them a predesignated set of gates.

What is the competitive advantage that hub airlines risk losing?

I struggled to find a competitive advantage of a genuine nature with the alternative to common use. It makes no sense at all for airlines to incur the complete cost of something like a campus-area network by replicating what we had to put in anyway. We had to carry so much stuff over our own network—and I have to do a good job with that, anyway—so why not ride on the back of our network? I think people haven't yet seen it operate in a place like this so comprehensively. What we easily demonstrated was that their methodology was more expensive than ours.

Are common-use networks deregulating the airline industry for a second time?

I don't think that you can truly deregulate without common use. It makes no sense for an airline to lock itself into a 30-year lease. We are in a state of technical change. I think you have a model here which is in everyone's best interest. Airlines are going to change over time. The major airlines know they are going to have to change. It's no secret. So change is going to happen, and we have positioned ourselves to be more flexible. Everyone can be more flexible.

What can other CIOs learn from what you've done here?

Well, my background is manufacturing, and in that industry I learned that you are always part of a community, no matter where you are in the supply chain. So, in order to treat something of this size and scale, I have to put myself at the center of a community. The airlines are a big part of it, so are the car-rental companies, so are the vendors, so are the passengers, so are the other airports receiving passengers and bags from us, the control authorities, etc. It's major, and putting yourself in the center of that community is what any CIO has to do.

What's next for the GTAA?

A lot more concrete. We're going to be building out a new pier. You know, the usual thing for an airport, constant change.