Handling 40 million travellers a year on 52 airlines making hundreds of flights per day is no mean logistical feat, particularly on a single runway.
This is why Gatwick airport is aiming at using Splunk's operational analytics cloud service to predict how numerous events, incidents and factors will affect its ability to work at peak performance.
Speaking at Splunk's .conf annual conference held in Las Vegas, Joe Hardstaff, business systems architect at Gatwick airport, explained the organisation is building out how it uses Splunk to predict the performance of its operations four hours in advance by linking multiple data sources together.
"We're starting to move more into the predictive side of things," he said.
"If there is disruption, we can try to man up the airport so we can get people through the airport as quickly as possible and still get them on their flights.
"So when we've got times of crisis or major incidents, we can predict how we are going to be operating in four hours' time and whether we are actually able to, through the action that we are taking, reduce that timeframe to stay operational."
Hardstaff said such an undertaking requires a massive number of systems which Splunk Cloud needs to consume data from, in order to be able to carry out in-depth predictive analytics.
So far, Gatwick is pushing its own real-time and historical operational data, gleaned from its monitoring systems, along with data taken from highway agencies all into the Splunk Cloud. This offers a view into how disruption in highways leading to the airport will affect the flow of travellers coming into its two terminals.
By crunching this data, Gatwick can gain an insight into how it needs to modify its operations to adapt to an increased influx of travellers all arriving at the airport at once.
Hardstaff noted how Gatwick is also putting the data it collects on traveller flow and queues into Splunk Cloud to help predict where congestion points are likely to be and take action to solve problems in progress or prevent them from happening in the first place.
"By consuming that data into Splunk we can easily identify where we've got pinch points and congestion and what we can do to try and resolve some of those issues," he said, highlighting how this capability helps Gatwick predict other obstacles people may encounter as they progress through the terminals.
Gatwick is also looking at consuming social network data from Facebook and Twitter in Splunk to get an idea on what customers are feeling and thinking, to get what Hardstaff called a "mood of the airport".
He said social network data could also be harvested from the company's Microsoft Yammer instant messaging service to get more insight and alerts as to what is happening across the airport from the perspective of its workers.
The overall aim is to achieve a terminal dashboard that gives an at-a-glance view of the airport's performance in both of its terminals and enable its staff to take action to ensure they deliver the best service they can for travellers.
"Gatwick's changing how it's thinking. Since I joined five years ago, the conversation was very much about how did we do last week, last month, last quarter; we've moved into the kind of conversation about how are we doing, how did we do in the first wave [of flights] this morning, how did we do in the last hour, how are we doing now," said Hardstaff.
"With the introduction of Splunk Cloud, we're starting to look into the future. It's very early days for us, but you know what? If I can predict what's happening four hours in the future, how long will it be before I can start predicting what will happen tomorrow, next week, or next month."
Stability and reliability
Gatwick had been using Splunk in its on-premise enterprise guise for over a year before it adopted the cloud version.
Hardstaff explained that Gatwick had started using Splunk Enterprise to detect errors in some of its IT systems.
"We started in July last year where we had problems with some of our systems, and our reliability and stability figures were dropping," he said.
"So myself and my colleague Kendrick decided we were going to have a go at Splunk and see if we could actually prove the value of deploying a product like that into our organisation."
The two systems architects started by applying Splunk to the airport's passenger validation system, which is used to scan boarding passes before security checks to make sure travellers are at the right airport and terminal at the right time.
"It enabled us to identify a number of performance gains, so much so that as an international passenger flying out of Gatwick, when you scan your boarding pass it will take five seconds or less for a validation response to come through. So that enables us to get a faster throughput of passengers through security," he said.
"We also identified some problems that we didn't know about, which was the other intriguing part of [Splunk} because we suddenly saw some horrible patterns that Splunk helped us identify, and we were able to drill in and eliminate those out of the configuration of the service."
This saw the duo apply Splunk to other systems, notably an automated PA system that was reporting errors.
By combining data from the system with information from checks made by an IT security officer to the system, Splunk was able to identify that the officer was introducing errors into the system through an automated security tool, thereby enabling the team to take action to solve the problem.
Business data benefits
As Gatwick's use of Splunk evolved, Hardstaff said the platform was used to crunch more business-oriented data found in the airport IT systems.
"The real value factor suddenly kicked in when we started consuming business data. We started to look at what does it take to consume all the information that was flowing between the various systems in our search function - that's from the gates to the X-ray machines and all the various bits and pieces in between," he said.
"We were able to look at how well the business was doing, and that was an interesting step change because IT is traditionally very good at doing problem analysis and understanding where there are issues and fixing them.
"So by applying that to a business context I can start to tell the business how it is performing with its processes."
Hardstaff cited the example of using Splunk to monitor data from the security team's tactical imaging projection system, which superimposes an image of forbidden items over suitcases and bags during the X-ray process to detect what is going through security.
Collecting data from the system and loading it into Splunk allows for a better insight into the performance of the security department and identify where areas might be lacking.
Gatwick also uses Splunk to analyse data on the operations of the airline ground teams which deal with incoming and outgoing aircraft.
By analysing data collected from airfield monitoring and air traffic control systems, Hardstaff said Gatwick has a virtual dashboard underpinned by Splunk, which displays current data on the performance of the airfield.
This allows the operations team to assess whether planes are going to leave on time and whether flights will achieve their turnaround arrival-to-departure targets.
By having this data, the airport can see if it can take action to prevent delays from happening or assess which flights are going to be late. It can then offer advice on the action an airline could to take to prevent that delay from having a knock-on effect to its flight schedules.
Gatwick's use of Splunk and other technology, notably cloud-based systems, is indicative of how cutting-edge technology and a healthy dose of IT ambition can really be used to enhance even established operations when put into action rather than remain stuck in theoretical cases studies touted by over-enthusiastic vendors.
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