Unified Communications Takes Flight

Unified Communications Takes Flight

Profit is the order of the day -- especially if you run an airport. Faced with huge capital costs and losses from airlines throttling back operations -- airport earnings are diving. Mumbai airport's CIO says he can help: by using unified communications on a scale unheard of in India, he plans to generate revenue. But can it do the trick?

In 2003, after endless rounds of political maneuvering and countless agitations against the privatization of major airports in the country, the Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport became part of a global fraternity of airports run by private stakeholders. The airport is India's busiest, with 22.2 million passengers and 480 tons of cargo passing through its doors in 2006-2007.

Among other decisions that were made at the time was to set up an IT department at the operations center of the new terminal. It was a decision that stakeholders of Mumbai's airport may well be thankful for in two years.

That the new terminal would need innovative communication technology was a foregone conclusion. Airports around the world were gearing up for the future and the Mumbai International Airport (MIAL) was presented with a chance to do some catching up. "The Indian economy has been growing at a phenomenal pace over the last few years...An airport is the face of a city. So it is critical that India, as one of the largest economies in the world, is be able to [create] a first impression," says Sanjay Reddy, MD, MIAL in an interview.

Studying other international airports like those in Munich and Montreal, the newly appointed head of IT, T.P. Anantheswaran decided he could do better. The challenge, as far as he was concerned, was not to rub shoulders with the rest but to stand head and shoulders above them. He decided that he could do that by stoking his communication system to generate revenue.

But whatever he planned also needed to ensure that the airport would be set to meet the needs of the next two decades and maybe even longer. "It (the communication backbone) had to accommodate the traffic we will see on this network going forward," he says. The challenge, he adds was to cater to increased passenger traffic -- from 18 to 40 million -- and increased cargo from four hundred thousand tons to 10 hundred thousand tons annually.

As Anantheswaran ticked off everything that would be required from the system, one observation emerged: the airport's communication infrastructure needed to meet the needs of a service provider -- a large step away from its traditional role.

"Once, airports were just space providers. Airlines put in their own IT. But, with the massive growth in passenger numbers and with airports facing a major space crunch, the need for common-use infrastructure has become epic. Today, airports have to be an unifying service provider," he says.

Unified communications (UC) seemed a logical fit largely because it would allow airport planners to merge and streamline services -- an apt philosophy when you're embarking on a huge project. "This (need for common infrastructure) made the management team at MIAL decide that everybody needed to ride on a single infrastructure," Anantheswaran recollects.

"As an infrastructure service provider at the airport, a robust IT network plays a key role," says Reddy.

But the common infrastructure/service provider approach had one hitch: the airport needed to ensure as close to zero downtime as possible. If, for example, a lack of connectivity disrupted check-ins, it would have a telescopic effect down the entire line operations, delaying everything.

Going UC would need bold decision making. But the time was ripe for bold revenue-making decisions.

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