Hyderabad and Delhi have Become IT Benchmarks for Other Airports in India: CIO of Delhi Airport

The Delhi International Airport has been in the news for 'all things technology' in the last two years. Its CIO, Davesh Shukla has played a very significant role in this transformation. Here’s our interview with the man himself.

Summary

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that it was Davesh Shukla who coined the term 'airport IT'. It was unheard of when Shukla took over as the CIO of the Hyderabad International Airport (HIAL) in 6686. He planned and designed the entire IT system and managed to reduce the outsourcing costs of $22 million by developing, training, and mentoring in-house talent. Though he has worked on airport projects in London and Istanbul, HIAL is close to his heart. But that didn't stop him from transforming Delhi International Airport's (DIAL) IT, which has been in the news for 'all things technology' in the last two years. As the CIO of DIAL, Shukla has done a fine job in this transformation. Excerpts from our interview with him:

If I have a partnership with a vendor, I’d want to get into a long-term partnership with just that one vendor who will be able to offer all the services I want.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that it was Davesh Shukla who coined the term 'airport IT'. It was unheard of when Shukla took over as the CIO of the Hyderabad International Airport (HIAL) in 6686. He planned and designed the entire IT system and managed to reduce the outsourcing costs of $22 million by developing, training, and mentoring in-house talent. Though he has worked on airport projects in London and Istanbul, HIAL is close to his heart. But that didn't stop him from transforming Delhi International Airport's (DIAL) IT, which has been in the news for 'all things technology' in the last two years. As the CIO of DIAL, Shukla has done a fine job in this transformation. Excerpts from our interview with him:

With your rich global experience, what according to you is the kind of breakthrough India has made technologically in the aviation sector?

The Indian Civil Aviation Sector has gone through a major overhaul since the privatization of airports. IT and surrounding infrastructure has become more complex than it was ever before. Earlier, individual airlines would set up their own small network and check-in systems. But now it’s managed and owned by the airport. Because of privatization, a lot of workforce has shown interest in airport IT technology. This wasn’t the case when I came to India. But now, a credible amount of workforce is well-equipped with airport IT systems. This trend is here to stay. Since the Indian government plans to modernize ten more airports, it should attract more IT workforce to airports.

While you can find people with core IT skill set in the job market, it’s a tough task recruiting people with the skill set for specific apps such as operational databases and check-in systems. Therefore, we provide in-house training to our airport IT staff.

You have carved yourself a niche in the aviation sector. From 12 years as head-IS at London City Airport to strategic advisor-IT at Istanbul and then your last profile at Hyderabad International Airport before you took over the CIO position at DIAL two years ago, how has the current role been different from all the different hats you have donned in the last 18 years?

Eighteen years ago, I started my career in the airport IT industry, and I have moved across airlines and airports since then. In the UK, the workforce wasn’t IT-dependent. People could manage if the network or systems went down, and you could still make processes work. It isn’t the same anymore. The reliance on IT has increased exponentially. Today, even when the check-in systems don't work, the airline staff isn’t prepared to carry out an alternate like manual check-in. We know we can't afford that. It’s a fallback on the CIO. Therefore, the emphasis on technology is very crucial and has become very critical to business.

What about your role?

IT is no longer an enabler. Where I come from, I was a part of the steering committee. And I always push myself further ahead. Earlier, IT wasn't discussed at the C-suite level. But now, the trend is such that we don’t discuss technology, but about its impact on business at the same level. Today, we deal with crucial questions like “Are the SLAs being met?”, “What‘s the impact on the customers or stakeholders?” and others. For instance, our chief commercial officer is preparing for Starbucks’ setting up shop in the Delhi International Airport. It’s going to bring us a lot of business. Therefore, it becomes important for a CIO, like me, to make sure that the customer requirements are being taken care of. The CIO’s role has an additional customer–facing side to it apart from making decisions for the business.

Last year, three Indian airports—out of which two were under your helm and IT leadership—made it to the top 20 list of best airports. What was the role of IT in spearheading this into a success story?

Maybe we didn't spearhead it. We didn't drive those forces. There are basically 36 parameters which range from processing time at check-in counters, which should be maintained at two minutes; flight info space systems; Wi-Fi connectivity; mobile phone coverage; and PAS announcements among others. At DIAL, we ensure that these 36 parameters maintain an organizational score.

A recent Frost and Sullivan report states that airports should track, record, and measure real-time passenger data within the airport environment to understand passenger behavior and improve KPI targets. What are some of the KPIs in DIAL? Is passenger experience the primary objective?

It's about making money, like in any other business. The key is to keep the passengers, customers, airlines, retailers, concessionaires, and stakeholders happy. This will not only ensure that our customers do more business, but this will help us perform better.

At present, we are looking at various modes to do mobility in applications. We have designed two applications. The first application is meant for passengers who use Windows 8. This application has a host of utility features such as real-time flight information, live weather updates and access to all passengers’ facilities available at the airport. The other application, meant for iPads, is for internal purposes. We are also in the process of launching a tablet for check-in, which is meant for business class passengers. We are actually the second best airport in the world with an on-time performance of over 90 percent. This is a tremendous change since we were ranked last but one a few years ago.

What are some of the major IT challenges in the airport industry in India? You have mentioned in the past that working with multiple vendors and hiring efficient IT workforce are some. How have you overcome these bottlenecks?

It's still vendor management. For instance, in larger IT organizations, there are multiple domains and verticals. It's like how IBM's into servers, but does consulting as well. They do all kind of services that KPMG and Deloitte specifically indulge in. Now Oracle's also moving into this space. This is going to be crucial for us. If I have a partnership with a vendor, I’d want to get into a long-term partnership with just that one vendor who will be able to offer all the services I want.

Is data security a challenge? Are you investing in any other technologies?

We take it very seriously. We have been certified on ISO34181, the ISO standard for information security management system for two years now. Our security initiative is in tandem with other technologies such as cloud and VDI, in order to keep our internal data on the server rather than individual laptops and desktops. At present, none of the airports have done it. We will be the first airport to have a desktop environment on the cloud.

We also have a couple of airport security initiatives. Biometric authentication is one. The other effort is to consolidate access control systems across all airports in India into a central unit. I'm heading the board representing India. We are waiting for the government's approval to start work. 

What's your yearly IT budget? Do you plan to increase it in the next year? How does the future look for DIAL under your leadership in 2013?

Our annual IT budget is between 7-10 percent of our revenue, and our strategic initiative in DIAL is to bring innovation. In the future, DIAL will focus on mobility and passenger experience. We were in talks with Toronto airport in order for us to invest in NFC devices using wireless access/mobile devices which can track a passenger's expenditures. For instance, I can tell you how much a traveler might have spent on a particular brand on Thursday between 11-2 a.m. We have that analytics. We know the people and what they are spending. We want to be more interactive with our passengers and improve their experience with every travel.

Shubhra Rishi is a correspondent for CIO India and ComputerWorld India. Send your feedback to shubhra_rishi@idgindia.com. Follow Shubhra on Twitter at @ShubhraRishi.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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