Work Unleashed: Dubai Airports innovates aviation on the fly

Work Unleashed

Welcome to our Work Unleashed series: a collection of posts from Box executives and conversations with Box customers on navigating the "new normal" of work today. Here, you'll find insights and resources that enable your teams to do their best work, anywhere, anytime.

Dubai International (DXB) is the world’s busiest international airport, serving hundreds of thousands of passengers daily. Dubai Airports has about 3,000 direct employees, but up to 100,000 people work on the two campuses, including various vendors and partners. Dubai Airports is also doing some particularly innovative things within the global aviation industry. For instance, a control system called “Follow the Greens” uses dynamic green lights to lead aircraft around the runway, while a cloud-based platform called realtime DXB represents the entire airfield in real time. There are a lot of moving parts, all highly reliant on technology, and many people who interact with that technology every day. 

The job of heading up technology and infrastructure goes to EVP Michael Ibbitson. He oversees facility management including runways, the concourse, the HVAC, and the electrical infrastructure. Ibbitson is always looking for new ways to build a long-term technology strategy, but because he started his career in the aviation industry just before 9/11, he’s also no stranger to high-pressure decisions and quick pivots. In a recent conversation with Box, he shared how DXB fared during the recent pandemic and lessons learned that will impact the future of aviation.

The switch to a new model of aviation management

Travel and tourism is a huge industry in Dubai. When COVID-19 came, civic leaders recognized the public health crisis and immediately limited travel. But even when passenger load decreases dramatically, planes still have to fly. As Ibbitson explains, “The thing people don’t know about the aviation industry is that most of the cargo that’s being flown is carried in the belly of passenger aircraft.” Particularly for a city like Dubai that’s so isolated, the airport is a lifeline to products, medical supplies, and pharmaceuticals. Even during a shutdown, 65% of DXB workers still had to come in to keep facilities running and the city supplied.

The other 35%, though, including IT and help desk workers, transitioned to remote work. Because DXB already had infrastructure in the cloud, one IT person was able to shut down all 4,000 onsite screens in just 40 minutes. Critical remote workers could still access proprietary services such as runway cameras in a virtual environment and view airplane operations from home.

Access to the tools of everyday work

As part of a best-of-breed cloud strategy, DXB was already using Box for cloud content management and Okta for identity management. “Box has become our standard default storage for everything,” says Ibbitson. “Even when using Office Suites, we’re still saving everything in Box. It’s the only platform that complies with our regulatory environment. It’s actually changed the nature of the way we do loads of things in our business.”

Most of the remote technology was already in place, but the biggest silver lining of the pandemic, for Ibbitson’s team, was an expanded comfort level with tech company-wide. It used to be that only the tech team was comfortable using digital signature capability. Now, the entire organization has adapted it in a time when, as Ibbitson says, “It’s impossible to move paper around like we were before. In fact, our printing has been reduced by 85-90%.” This and other on-the-fly changes to HR platforms have ensured that all docs and certificates people need to get visas and buy cars are now available online. Leveraging Box, the pandemic acted as an accelerant to streamline internal processes.

Another silver lining: thanks to down time in passenger traffic, Ibbitson’s team has been able to propel forward some innovative projects. They’ve been able to update the network in their check-in facilities and conduct an enormous emergency power test of their own gas turbines and diesel generators. These projects had been challenging to move forward in an airport busy 24 hours a day. And they’ve been able to do all of this from home, with just one person onsite, wearing PPE, and using an iPad to communicate with the remote team.

Carrying forward into a new way of working

Some of the emergency measures the DXB IT team has taken will be temporary. Others will be sustained. Going forward, Ibbitson says, there will be a hybrid solution between remote and onsite work for the long-term: “That flexibility — and the significant move to digitization of the services we provide internally and to our partners — will sustain.” 

With cloud-based tools in place, there are now opportunities to reach out to an even wider network to deliver projects and services. “In actual fact, I think it will enable us to use different ways of delivering services,” says Ibbitson. “On the technology platform side, I think our ability to collaborate cross-border will increase.”

The last few months have shown all kinds of companies the consequences of not having a significant cloud-based strategy. While a lot of people and organizations have transitioned to remote work paradigms under pressure, many are embracing this way of working and the technology that enables it. As far as Ibbitson is concerned, "The resilience that the cloud has given our digital setup, and how quickly it has allowed us to respond to our business needs, has cemented our technology strategy moving forward."

Watch the full session with Michael Ibbitson: