Heathrow CEO Interview: Becoming the world’s most “tech modern” airport

Heathrow Terminal 2 opened in June 2014 as the culmination of an £11 billion project to transform passenger experience. John Holland-Kaye headed up the terminal re-build and was subsequently promoted to CEO, having impressed the airport by boosting retail income and passenger satisfaction.

In this interview, we ask John about the lessons that were applied from Heathrow’s chaotic Terminal 5 opening and his ambitions for becoming the most technologically advanced airport in the world.


BlueSky: Heathrow Terminal 2 opened last year and technology was at the heart of ensuring a smooth and efficient passenger experience. How did you ensure a timely opening while rolling out complex technical infrastructure?

JHK: Big infrastructure is what Heathrow does. Building and opening a new terminal is a huge challenge for any airport and Terminal 2 has been no exception. Not only was it built on-time and within budget, it was built in the middle of the world’s busiest two runway airport without impacting Heathrow’s daily operation.

JHK quote 1Along with a brand new terminal, the project has involved construction of new roads, a new car park and new passenger connections to Heathrow express, Heathrow Connect, London Underground and coach terminals.

24,000 staff from 160 organisations worked together to deliver a great service to passengers. The new Terminal 2 isn’t just one building but a complex machine comprised of 118,000 individual assets that need to work in harmony to deliver a good experience.


BlueSky: What lessons have you taken from the T2 opening?

JHK: Heathrow has learnt from airport delivery and infrastructure best practice from colleagues at other airports around the world as well as from our own experience in opening Terminal 5.

Staged airline moves – Terminal 2’s 26 airlines moved into their new home over a six month period, starting with United Airlines on 4 June. Unlike Terminal 5, which opened to more than 40,000 passengers on day one, Terminal 2 was scheduled to welcome only 6,000 passengers on its first day of operation. This meant that for the first three weeks following its opening, Terminal 2 operated at only 10% capacity so we could iron out any teething troubles with minimal impact to our passengers.JHK quote 2

Passenger trials – By the time Terminal 2 opened, it had undergone more than 180 trials with 14,000 volunteers taking on the role of passengers and providing comprehensive feedback on their experience. We also ran four end-to-end trials – with 3,000 volunteers in each – which will put pressure on every element of the passenger journey from arrival in the car park to aircraft boarding. Each of these trials enabled us to make adjustments to Terminal 2’s wayfinding, systems, staff briefings and even restaurant menus to improve the experience for our passengers.

Baggage stress tests – Terminal 2’s baggage system handles an average of 2,400 bags an hour during peak holiday seasons. To prepare for opening, we processed more than 100,000 bags with the help of our trials team and have successfully stressed tested the system at a peak of 4,000 bags per hour without issue.

Familiarisation and training – Every organisation working at Terminal 2 from airlines to baggage handlers and retailers underwent an intensive familiarisation and training program to ensure they know how to operate in their new workplace. These programs covered every aspect of the terminal from staff parking, check-in systems, and baggage processing and wayfinding advice for passengers.


BlueSky: One of your notable achievements at Heathrow has been delivering the ‘world’s best shopping experience’ five years in a row – how did you achieve this? 

JHK: Heathrow has remained on the cutting edge of airports on a global scale by listening to our passengers, identifying trends ahead of the curve and investing in premium surroundings for our customers. Heathrow today is home to a staggering list of firsts including the only John Lewis and the only airport Personal Shopping service in the world.

We are dedicated to ensuring the Heathrow experience is unique, from shops offering the latest in fashion to restaurants created by Michelin-starred chefs Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal.

Heathrow has also just unveiled the airport’s new £40 million luxury shopping wing at Terminal 5. The redevelopment, which has supported more than 175 jobs, has been an 18 month project providing room for five new luxury brands as well as two airport exclusives – a Fortnum & Mason champagne bar and the first Louis Vuitton store within a European airport.

The result is an enviable position of being the world’s best airport retail experience, which welcomes more than 73 million passengers every year and delivers the highest spend per square meter for an airport across the globe at more than £36,500.

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BlueSky: You have also overseen considerable improvements to the passenger experience at Heathrow – how has technology enabled you to achieve this?

JHK: The improvements in passenger experience are directly connected with the improvements in technological operations. We have upgraded our technology to ensure consistent, accurate information is shared widely so that there is greater collaboration across airlines, authorities and staff. This helps us to accurately forecast day-to-JHK quote 5day demand so that we have the required resources in the right place at the right time, 24 hours a day.

We have introduced more automation including Automated Ticket Presentation at the entrance to security. This enhances passenger self-service and importantly gives security staff more time to assist passengers to go through this part of their journey as smoothly and quickly as possible.


BlueSky: Automation and common-use facilities are among the technical innovations you have introduced at T2 – how did you support the transition to new ways of working for both staff and passengers?

JHK: We have made our facilities as intuitive as possible so that journeys are smoother from both a passenger and staff perspective. To help deliver this we undertook a rigorous testing programme of technology in the new terminal.

Numerous trials were carried out, often using members of the public to simulate all aspects of the terminal operation so the trials focussed on people within the process and not just about getting the technology working.

We also created an off-site ‘Model Airport’ so we could safely test and prove the technology, implemented and tested a ‘first of type’ for every piece of technology used in the terminal and looked for any opportunity to minimize risk to our existing operation.


BlueSky: What role will technology play in the future of Heathrow and its expansion?

JHK: Expansion at Heathrow will give Britain the most technologically modern and efficient airport in the world at the heart of an integrated transport system.

JHK quote 6The increasing use of mobile technology in our terminal infrastructure will be key to how we do things in the future.  We have already provisioned high density free WiFi in all of Heathrow’s long dwell areas to enable our passengers to stay connected as much as possible.

Terminal 2 is a great example of how technology has been built into the new facilities and we will continue to do this with expansion. We are also looking at providing detailed information that improves passenger experience of Heathrow, including directions to their gate and retail offerings tailored to their journey.

We are hoping to further improve our automation and self-service within the check-in process to enable increasing capacity and improve their customer experience through choice and speed. Self-bag tagging and potentially self-service bag drop and boarding are also areas we are looking into.


With cargo, we are also moving to a mobile world using tablets, apps and smartphones.  We’ve been trialling iAuditor and are now progressing to implementation.  We’ll have also digitised vehicle tracking and will be deploying smartphones and tablets onto the airfield to utilise the Wide-Area Mobile Data network that was recently

JHK quote 7installed.

Significantly, an expanded Heathrow will also generate less noise than today thanks to improvements in aircraft technology, changes to night flights and the capability of early morning arrivals to land further to the west.





John Holland Kaye is a keynote speaker at the Connected Aviation event taking place on 27th-29th April 2015 at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel in London.

To request an invitation to attend, email: julie.coates@terrapinn.com