The Future of Flight

 
 
By Eileen Feretic  |  Posted 2009-06-01
 
 
 

It’s not easy playing catch-up, but that’s what Dominic Nessi has been doing since September 2007, when he became the executive director and CIO of the Information Technology Services Division of Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA).

The last major construction done by LAWA, the city department that owns and operates Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), as well as Ontario, Palmdale and Van Nuys airports, took place in 1984. And the IT infrastructure was as out of date as the physical facilities.

Clearly, something had to be done, and the catalyst, according to Nessi, was the new generation of very large aircraft with very large wingspans. “These planes just didn’t fit at most of our existing gates,” he explains.

To remedy that situation, LAWA began renovating LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal at the end of 2006, and the renovations are expected to be completed in 2010. In addition to physical renovations, the IT infrastructure is also being upgraded. “IT is part of everything that’s being done,” Nessi says. “The physical and technology upgrades have gone hand in hand right from the beginning.

“We’re now looking at expanding the terminal even further and building what we call Bradley West, which will have even bigger concourses and a larger core area. It will be partially brand-new and partially attached to the existing structure, and it will almost double our square footage.” That project is expected to be completed in 2013.

Bradley is a common-use terminal, so any airline can use the gates at any time. When the airline’s personnel arrive at the gate, they simply log in on LAWA’s common-use system to access the airport’s flight information display and gate departure screens, and then they use terminal emulation software to access their proprietary software to handle their reservations. Voice over IP is built into the network, so the phone at the gate is part of the common-use system.

“We provide the essential infrastructure, such as the new network we implemented at the Bradley terminal, as well as a new Ethernet network that we’re in the process of installing throughout LAX,” Nessi says. “We’re probably about 70 percent complete with that and hope to finish it this summer.”

In addition to the wired network, LAWA wants to significantly expand its wireless network. At this time, Wi-Fi technology is installed in the Bradley terminal, allowing passengers to access the Internet from the public areas.

“But wireless technology is not anywhere near as prevalent as we need it to be,” Nessi states. “We’re testing some equipment now, and if that test goes well, we would probably start the wireless project in midsummer, after the wired portion is complete.

“The airport is as dynamic an environment as you can find, and it requires a wireless network so that we can make changes in how we support security devices and how our managers meet their responsibilities for airport operations. We know we need a wireless network throughout LAX, but we want to get through the wired piece first.”

MAKING CONNECTIONS

LAWA utilizes a combination of equipment in its 10 Gigabit Ethernet network. “We use mostly Cisco equipment, as Cisco is our network standard, but we also use Extreme Networks equipment at the Tom Bradley terminal,” Nessi says.

Currently, the network connects LAX with LAWA’s other airports. However, management is considering making this network available to the 70 or so airlines that use the airports.

“This is not a technology issue, it’s a business-model issue,” Nessi explains. “What would the airlines like to get from us, how much can we charge them, what will it cost to share the bandwidth that we have and do we even have excess capacity? We’re looking at all these issues right now.

“There are some really interesting things happening in the airport industry. A lot of wireless is being deployed, particularly in baggage-handling areas, and a lot of handheld devices are being used to monitor and check bags. In fact, some planes are their own network. When they come into a gate, the planes can make a wireless connection and order parts. They can even remind the maintenance folks what maintenance is required and whether parts are on the way.”

LAWA is relying more and more on technology for virtually everything, and a wireless network is going to be critical, according to Nessi, who offered this example of what’s being done today at the Bradley terminal: “We have devices we call COWs, or common use on wheels. If a ticket line is too long, an available ticket agent can wheel a wireless COW right to the passengers who haven’t made it to the desk area yet. The COWs tie into our common-use systems and have the flight information display screen right on top.”

Currently, the COWs are used only in the Bradley terminal, but LAWA is planning to expand their use. “We’re basically going to go through the four terminals we own,” Nessi says. “The other five terminals are owned by airlines or airline cooperative associations. We’ll extend common use where it makes sense, and, little by little, we’ll be migrating COWs and other technologies throughout the terminals that we own, as well as to any that we reacquire.”

These technologies are—and will continue to be—billed back to the airlines on a utility basis.

SHARING THE NETWORK

LAWA is planning to expand its technology offerings to the airlines it hosts. “In the future, all airlines—not just common-use ones—will be able to utilize our network,” Nessi explains. “For instance, today American Airlines is in our terminal number four, and it has its own telecom lines and its own networks. In the future, American would have the option to use our network.

“We have so many different entities purchasing telecommunications that it would benefit all of us to centralize. Once our network is finished in July, we will speak with the airlines to see if they want to use our network rather than their own. Some of the larger airlines will probably continue using their own network, but a lot of smaller airlines may find that it’s not worthwhile to purchase their own telecom lines.”

It all comes down to using technology to support and enhance business initiatives. “We want to provide a friendly environment for our airlines because they’re our business partners, our main tenants,” Nessi says. “So we want to make sure they have the ability to operate as cost-effectively and economically as possible.”

LAWA also has concessionaires that use portions of its network services. For example, in first-class lounges, the concessionaires use the airport’s cable infrastructure, which comes from Time Warner, to link to the airport terminal. Then they use their own cable from that point into their facility. LAWA doesn’t charge for that usage, since it considers that service part of the lease.

“If we decide to provide 24/7 network operations to the airlines and concessionaires, we will have to factor that into our business model to make sure it makes economic sense for us,” Nessi says. “We would have to add a cadre of folks working 24/7 to make sure everything was working properly. If we were not able to cover the cost of those employees, it wouldn’t make business sense to provide network operations to the airlines and concessionaires. As soon as we finish the network, we’ll start to look at this and determine whether or not it makes financial sense for us.”

LAWA also plans to expand wireless technology through-out the airport. “The wireless network will be extremely critical to our future success,” Nessi points out. “Our network is used both internally for administrative matters and externally for our airline and concessionaire partners, and it’s also a big piece of our security infrastructure. Almost every portion of all our terminals and most of our perimeter area is under constant surveillance through a CCTV system, and it all runs on our network.

“Today, our security cameras and access control mechanisms—we call these devices ACAMs—are all on our wired network, but we’re looking forward to the near future when we’ll be able to deploy these devices using a wireless network. That will give us a tremendous amount of flexibility and will also save us money because running cable is expensive.”

WEB WORK IN THE WORKS

In May, LAWA launched a new intranet site for its approximately 4,000 employees, 191 of whom are in the Information Technology Services Division. “Eventually, we will probably allow city employees to have access to the intranet as well,” Nessi says. “We want to have a very strong collaborative environment.

“Our intranet is basically the same as the intranet we designed when I was the CIO at the National Park Service, and it was wildly successful there. We’re using all the same features and the same format. And, like the employees at the National Park Service, our staff members will be able to access the intranet every day to get the latest news about our airports, as well as information about the airport/airline business.”

The majority of LAWA’s employees have access to the intranet from their desktop computers, and there are kiosks available for the security and maintenance staffs to use. In May, a handheld version of the intranet was deployed for employees who do not have a desktop computer.

“Our intranet will have wikis, chat rooms and blogs, which will be very valuable to the airport because our employees have a tremendous wealth of intelligence, but we don’t always have all their knowledge committed to paper,” Nessi explains. “Wikis are a great way of sharing knowledge among employees.

“We recently tested a wiki on the A380 plane because everybody has a lot of interest in that aircraft. It’s great to have at your fingertips the ability to find out how big the wing is or how tall the tail is, or which gates can accommodate the A380. These are important things for our employees to know.”

LAWA is considering expanding the intranet into an extranet in the near future so that city officials, councilmen and possibly local community groups can have access to some of that information. “First, we have to see what kinds of content we have on the intranet and determine who gets access to each type,” Nessi says. “For example, if we have contracting plans and procurement information on the intranet, we need to restrict access to that section of the site. So we’re working on developing our editorial content policy.”

LOOKING FOR GREEN SKIES

Another area that’s undergoing major changes involves LAWA’s three data centers, which are “pretty much maxed out,” according to Nessi. He is now scouting out locations in a three- to five-mile radius of LAX for the site of a modern, green data center that would replace the three existing ones.

To deal with LAWA’s server needs until the new center is completed in approximately two years, Nessi began a virtualization project, which is about 40 percent complete. “We’ve actually stopped there,” he says, “because we’ve turned all our attention to finding the best location for the new data center.”

Though the location of the data center is still up in the air, the color isn’t: It will be green. “We’re looking at all aspects of sustainability,” Nessi says, “everything from how we buy our power and where our power emanates from to how we cool the data center. We’ve started discussing a number of different sustainable designs.

“We’re right along the ocean here, and it’s fairly cool most of the year, so we don’t need to have a closed system. We’re considering using external air to cool the data center to around 70 degrees. We could take in fresh air and condition it to make sure it’s clean, and then vent the heated air from the servers. We’re currently looking at a number of external-air designs.”

Another key location priority is to find a site from which LAWA can purchase green power.

Environmental issues are important to Nessi, who is the chairperson of an IT sustainability subcommittee of the Airports Council International, an association of the world’s airports. “As an airport community, we’re starting to pull together ideas on the best ways to have a sustainable IT environment—one that goes beyond the data center,” he explains. “For instance, we’re putting a script into our network that every night will automatically shut off all of our PCs that aren’t being used.”

LAWA is also looking at different ways to dispose of old computer equipment. “We refresh 3,000 to 4,000 PCs every three or four years, and that’s a vast amount of toxic material going back into the environment,” Nessi says. “So we’re starting to look at different things we can do to handle this problem.”

Nessi doesn’t believe that a lower budget is an excuse for any CIO to give up on green IT initiatives. “You always have to replace some hardware, and you can use those opportunities to add some green to your data center,” he points out.

“For instance, moving from a rack-mounted server to a blade server generally reduces power consumption by about 25 percent; migrating from fat clients to thin clients could save as much as 85 percent on power; and going from conventional monitors to Energy Star-rated monitors could save about 92 percent.

“There are many different things we all can do. One change we at LAWA plan to make is to use vendors and suppliers that sell green products.”

WORKING IN SYNC

As a proprietary agency of the city of Los Angeles, LAWA is independent, “but we have a good working relationship with the city,” Nessi says. “Our mayor is very interested in what happens in the airport, and our CEO, Gina Marie Lindsey, strives to be a good partner with the city and the community. Also, the city’s CIO and I are always looking for ways to support each other.

“My success as a CIO is completely dependent on my peers in the non-IT areas of the airport. I’m very fortunate that Gina Marie Lindsey and LAWA’s COO, Steve Martin, are very supportive. They both ensure that our technology investments are well-thought-out and meet the future needs of our business.”

Does that mean Nessi believes that IT projects should have business value? Absolutely. “We in IT have to do a good job of proving the business case,” he says. “We can’t just say that we need a wireless network. We have to prove how important that network is to the airport, land-side and terminal operations. We have to connect all IT investments to the business operation of the airport.”

That push for business-IT integration is paying off. “In the long run, this process results in a better IT product because it’s aligned with the business,” Nessi says. “We have a tremendously talented executive team at LAWA, strong IT governance and very spirited discussions on technology. We actually have people begging to be on the governance committee so they can have input into IT decisions.”

Nessi has an IT strategic plan that has projects going about 10 years into the future. Some are tied to the construction or modernization of airport facilities, but all the projects have a large technological component, such as security or IT infrastructure.

The cost of these projects will add up to hundreds of millions of dollars, so proving business value is essential. “Right now, we have about 30 major active capital projects with a budget of about $200 million,” Nessi says. “And that doesn’t even include our operations budget, the budget for the Bradley West terminal or any other construction projects we’ll be doing down the road.

“I used to live in Denver, where they have a saying that the Platte River is a mile wide and an inch deep. I sometimes feel that’s how we are in the IT Services Division. We have a vast number of responsibilities here—everything from managing paging systems to providing audio-visual support for board meetings and for the many events held at the airport.

“Of course, we also handle all the traditional IT areas: our three data centers; the Internet and intranet; and support for the security, radio and phone systems. In fact, if it’s digital, it belongs to IT.”