London Heathrow: Britain’s front door for passengers and cargo

Heathrow’s Head of Data and Analytics, Nick Beresford, details the airport’s data transformation journey; exploring new ways to exploit data to enable an efficient operation, drive business value and deliver an excellent passenger experience.

London Heathrow: Britain’s front door for passengers and cargo

Heathrow is often described as a city – with 80,000 colleagues working across the community that we call ‘Team Heathrow’, and on a busy day seeing over 260,000 passengers – it can certainly feel like one. For years, Heathrow has been described as ‘full’, but in 2019, the airport welcomed 80.9 million passengers; a volume increase for the ninth consecutive year. Building more infrastructure has often been the solution to this capacity challenge, but that overlooks the opportunity to make more intelligent use of the existing infrastructure to unlock latent capacity. The key to unlocking this hidden opportunity is data – acquiring, analysing and acting upon data.

Even given recent events, with increasing uncertainty in the aviation industry, data allows an airport to make difficult decisions with confidence in a constantly changing environment. The terminals are unusually quiet, but Heathrow continues to play a vital role in bringing in essential medical supplies and repatriating citizens.

The challenge: Capacity, variability and complexity at Heathrow Airport

We start with what we do know and add our best assumptions to predict what we don’t”

So where is the starting point on this journey to realising the vision of becoming an efficient, data‑driven airport? As one might in any situation, we start with what we do know and add our best assumptions to predict what we don’t. In airport management, that means starting with the flight schedule; declaring which aircraft the airlines are going to operate, at what time and on which routes.

But predicting the number of passengers on each of Heathrow’s 1,650 daily scheduled flights does not tell us when those passengers are going to show up at each point in their journey. A passenger flying to Milan for a meeting on a Tuesday in May will probably choose to arrive at Heathrow later than if they were catching the same flight with their family on a Saturday morning in October. Yet these differences have a huge impact on the operation when scaled up to 100,000 passengers daily choosing when to arrive to check in. Heathrow uses various technologies to measure and monitor the flow of passengers through their journey, which is used to build flow profiles to transform the forecast of passengers on a flight into a predicted flow at key points throughout their journey.

From this flow profile, there are myriad variables affecting the route that passengers take and how quickly they progress. A passenger with a premium ticket may check in at a dedicated desk and then use the FastTrack security lane. Transaction times at each stage of the journey vary significantly – passengers travelling on business are often quicker because they are more familiar with the check-in process, and remember to remove liquids and laptops at security. Leisure passengers visiting from abroad may not understand unfamiliar processes in a foreign language and consequently take longer at security or immigration. Moving data from legacy systems to the cloud is enabling Heathrow to analyse larger datasets and understand the nuances of these key variables.

Resource planning is fundamental to an efficient operation – balancing supply and demand to ensure that the right level of service is delivered at an affordable cost to the business. Much of the resource planning is done in isolation by third parties (for example, border force and handling agents), with a detailed view of their part of the operation, but no visibility of the bigger picture. A cloud-based system enables a collaborative approach, in which data is shared (where commercial and personal information restrictions allow), so that resource plans can be based on a holistic view of demand. At Heathrow, we share the passenger and bag forecast data with our operating partners, via an interactive dashboard called the integrated plan. This collaborative approach to data was more difficult from on-premises systems.

New ways of working

The result of this growing reliance on data and data‑sharing has been that Heathrow has had to start thinking differently about its approach to information management. It is very difficult to run processes in a repeatable and reliable way when it involves a lot of manual handling – extracting data from source systems, manually formatting flight schedules and forecasts in Excel, and loading them into bespoke resource planning models. Over time, these processes become increasingly complex, until the point when few colleagues know how they work, and how to fix them when they inevitably break. This is not a scenario that is conducive to the continuous improvement of our planning processes and driving efficiency in the operation.

The solution is to gather the most accurate and detailed operational data from which to build our planning assumptions, combine them with a detailed prediction of demand and use a sophisticated, supported planning tool to create an achievable resource plan. Furthermore, transitioning to a modern planning tool allows us to constantly refine and optimise our resource plans dynamically as new information emerges – flight cancellations, schedule perturbation, aircraft upgrades and resource shortfalls.

For Heathrow, the challenge to take control of data management and the need to transform our planning processes coincided, presenting the opportunity to take advantage of the efficiency, scalability and security that cloud computing offers. Microsoft Azure was selected as Heathrow’s cloud environment, and following an RFP, Copenhagen Optimization’s Better Airport® suite of tools was selected to replace our existing check-in, security and baggage planning software.

The implementation of Better Airport has been a collaborative process. We have worked closely with the Copenhagen Optimization team to ensure that the benefits of better planning will ultimately be realised. In some cases, the developer team rewrote significant parts of the codebase to better fit the Heathrow airport operation and through this, enhance the product.

Planning for the future Heathrow

It is easy to assume that the layout of an airport is static. Heathrow has two runways and four terminals, but in the last 15 years we have permanently closed one terminal and opened two new ones. At a more granular level, the airport is in a state of constant change. Airlines come and go, and they move between terminals. New technology, like self-service kiosks and bag drops in check in and e-Gates in immigration, dramatically change the layout and use of valuable space in the terminals. Planning tools of the past were implemented, and left to run on the assumption that nothing would change – terminal infrastructure, planning assumptions and the platforms on which the planning tools themselves were built.

Moving our data and our planning processes to the cloud has enabled Heathrow’s planning processes to be as dynamic as the airport that they support. A great example of this has been the speed with which Heathrow has been able to adapt its operation to the new requirements of social distancing. Not only does Copenhagen Optimization’s solution consider the passengers’ queuing time, it also models the queuing space. The result is a tool with the flexibility to adapt with the evolving needs of the operation. In these challenging times, with passenger volumes reduced to a level that we are not used to, terminal capacity may not be an issue, but cloud-based data and tools are helping to deliver the operational efficiency that is as important as ever to the success of the airport. As plans are updated in the cloud, users access the plans directly in the planning tool without the need for sending emails or printing hard copies which become outdated almost immediately.

Heathrow is only beginning its transformation to become a data-driven organisation, but with people who are passionate about unlocking the potential of our data, we are putting in place the capability to deliver safety, service and efficiency as we look to the future recovery of our industry.


Nick Beresford is an engineer with a passion for problem solving and process improvement. Following 10 years working in Planning and Supply Chain Logistics, Beresford joined the Terminal 2 Operations Delivery team at Heathrow in 2013. He has worked with key internal and external stakeholders to develop new planning processes, enabling the terminal to have a smooth and successful operation through its initial opening and four-month transition into business as usual. As Head of Data and Analytics, Beresford is at the forefront of Heathrow’s data transformation journey, exploring new ways to exploit data to enable an efficient operation, driving business value and delivering an excellent experience for Heathrow’s passengers.