Emerging Tech

IT lessons from the Charlotte Airport

For better or worse, many CIOs are tasked with the same mission as Jerry Orr, this airport's CEO: delivering a commodity service of high quality at the lowest price in town.

I spend more time than I'd otherwise like at various airports around the world. Fortunately, my most frequently visited airport, Charlotte's Douglas International Airport, happens to be one of my favorite. From an airport consumer's perspective, this airport is just about ideal. Parking is close to the terminal, the airport is clean and well-organized, no trains or buses are required to go between terminals, and there is a good selection of restaurants, bars, and lounges for the inevitable delay.

I had not given much thought to what actually made the airport tick behind the scenes until I had the chance to hear the airport's Chief Executive Officer, Jerry Orr, speak on the topic, and it struck me that much of what he implemented to make Charlotte's airport a success was also applicable to IT management. Mr. Orr had an overriding mission for his airport: to make it the most cost-effective place for airlines to do business. He was a bit more blunt about this mission (I recall the word "cheap" being used several times), and while we spend a lot of time on these pages talking about making IT a strategic asset, for better or worse many CIOs are tasked with the same mission as Mr. Orr: delivering a commodity service of high quality at the lowest price in town.

Mr. Orr benchmarked the airport on a handful of relatively simple metrics, the most important being the per-passenger landing fees charged to each airline by the airport. Charlotte's are the lowest of the major U.S. and worldwide airports, despite the airport delivering high customer service (including the somewhat odd touch of restroom attendants offering mouthwash, towels, and mints). For the CIO that is tasked with delivering what amounts to a low-cost shared service, this is the right mind-set. Your metrics should be as simple as CLT's: easy to calculate, easy to explain, and easy to measure so that a variance can be quickly spotted and mitigated without complex measurements that take a team of statisticians to perform. Do not fear a metric as simple as IT cost per user or an equivalent; when your focus is cost, these types of metrics are perfect.

In addition to this simple metric, the airport fully funds itself without the use of taxpayer money, which allows it to operate with minimal local government oversight. When external bodies said projects like upgrading the airport's access roads would take years, Mr. Orr took over the project and did it in less time and at less cost. Each of the airport's initiatives is done with an eye on the cost-per-passenger metric, looking for ways to impact the metric by increasing airport revenue, trimming costs, or both.

Rather than looking to save pennies, large and somewhat unconventional changes were made like moving support staff offsite so prime airport real estate could be rented out, and installing solar panels at the new facility when it was determined they could truly cut electricity costs, rather than for "green" PR. While most IT organizations cannot truly self-fund, they can wrest control back from vendors or project teams that have overpromised and are underdelivering and get meaningful work done to improve internal service quality without embarking on massive projects. While other groups might be planning or pontificating, it seems Mr. Orr would suggest marshalling the doers, putting your head down, and getting to work.

While a CIO who is deeply involved in strategic decisions and furthers the company's strategy with every project is an appropriate goal for many companies, in a silent majority IT simply needs to be "good and cheap." One could do far worse than looking at an organization like the Charlotte airport for guidance on how to accomplish this in a no-nonsense manner.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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