Seattle’s Port Authority

Unlike many major air and sea hubs, the Port of Seattle keeps its IT in-house. CIO Peter Garlock explains how he manages the complex operation and why custom IT works.

It would be a big enough challenge if Peter Garlock only had to support Sea-Tac Airport. The hub is the nation’s thirteenth busiest airport, accommodating 37.5 million air passengers and 319,000 metric tons of air cargo each year.

But Garlock is the chief information officer for the entire Port of Seattle, a position that entails supporting cruise terminals, a marine container port, the seaport, corporate services, and a real estate division. And his job isn’t slowing down any time soon; Sea-Tac served a record number of passengers for the fifth straight year in 2015 and is the fastest-growing airport in the United States.

“We don’t just work with the business, we’re integral to the business. IT is no longer an expense to be managed.”

Despite its massive size and economic impact (the port impacts 40 percent of Washington’s revenues, and each cruise ship that comes through generates $2 million in the local economy), Garlock says he tries not to focus on this complexity. “To achieve success takes a high-performance, customer-focused team across all lines of business,” he says. “It also takes strong leaders who can keep pace with constant change.” That’s exactly the kind of team Garlock has built since coming to the Port in 2003. His department includes not only people who work with every aspect of information technology, but also experts in business analysis, finance, and project management.

While many ports in the United States outsource information technology, the Port of Seattle has one of the few self-sufficient IT departments in the country. The strategic move, which stems from Garlock’s time in the private sector, has enabled his team to be highly innovative and retain the ability to rapidly respond to the needs of the business. In fact, Garlock believes the two areas are inextricably linked. “We don’t just work with the business—we’re integral to the business. IT is no longer an expense to be managed,” he says. For Garlock’s team, the mission is to innovate and leverage IT investments to help the Port serve its travelers and tenants alike.

76

Gates at Sea-Tac Airport

855

Average daily aircraft operations

70%

Airport passengers who originate or terminate their trip at Sea-Tac

40th

World airport ranking by number of passengers

In doing so, Garlock faces additional challenges, including Seattle’s thirst for technology and scrutiny as a quasi-public entity. The region is home to large tech-facing companies including Amazon, Microsoft, Costco, T-Mobile, Starbucks, Boeing, and many startups. Those companies and their customers are driving rapid growth in the area, and they have high expectations around technology infrastructure and services.

Garlock started his career in the US Air Force and went on to manage complex IT organizations for global companies in various industries. He came to the Port in 2003 after working for several startups and consulting. He says that working as the facility’s CIO has required him to draw upon “just about everything he’s experienced in his career about technology, business, leadership, and organizational development.”

An early key to his team’s successful partnership with the business was the creation of an IT governance board made up of senior executives from across the organization. The board helps IT prioritize and demonstrate ROI benefits as part of investment decisions and strategies prior to funding. “We run IT as a business within a business, and it works well for us,” Garlock says.

Prioritizing projects based on their return on investment is the only way the Port’s IT team can serve such a diverse customer base that includes internal business units and operations, airport tenants, airlines, and the traveling public.

In addition to rapidly evolving technology, the Port’s IT team must also deal with dramatic changes in the air-travel industry—as well as the rapidly growing volume of traffic at a land-locked airport. To help offset the inability to expand geographically, the airport is using technology for airport-wide, standardized infrastructure for managing gates and check-in processes. This approach makes processes like the relocation of airlines within the terminal more efficient and less costly. The Port—not the airlines—provides most of the information technology required to check in passengers and get them to their flights. In addition, the Port’s IT team provides one of the most sophisticated free Wi-Fi networks in the country—as well as network services that rival that of a small city for tenants and stores in the terminals.

It’s such a complex environment that Garlock’s team often finds it necessary to develop its own systems when off-the-shelf solutions are not available or sufficiently robust. As an example, the team developed a flight-line inspection system to document compliance with FAA regulations. Port flight-line inspection crews access the check-list program using an iPad to take pictures and note their observations and discrepancies. The program has proven so successful that other airports have requested access to it.

Today, as with all enterprise IT organizations, the Port of Seattle is intensely focused on information and technology security. “People just don’t realize how much data—and how many complex systems—are utilized to operate an airport,” Garlock says. The parking garage, for example, is one of the largest under-roof garages in North America and handles over $50 million in transactions each year. Those transactions are mostly paid through debit and credit cards, making the Port a level-two merchant that must deal with PCI compliance and other related issues when managing a point-of-sale system.

The flurry of daily Port operations and activity creates mountains of data that the IT team is using to glean business-intelligence trends and opportunities to run more efficiently. “By better understanding how people are moving through our facilities throughout the day, we can use that information to improve customer service and the traveler’s overall experience through better way-finding and more efficient facilities management,” Garlock says. Take the way Sea-Tac provides information at cell phone waiting lots: by scanning a giant QR code painted on a billboard from their cars in the lots, drivers waiting to pick up passengers can receive real-time arrival status for flights landing within the hour.

Data governance and business intelligence will have a bigger role as Garlock takes the Port into the future. “There is so much we can do with the data we’re able to collect to build synergies, offer new services, and find and exploit trends,” he says. IT already uses proximity to Wi-Fi access point location information to provide users waiting at their gates with information about nearby stores, facilities, and flight info. IT can also determine which gate a user is near and deduce what flight information they need. And, to further leverage business intelligence initiatives, Garlock’s team is experimenting with iBeacon technology to assist in way-finding and real-time terminal information, such as directions to the shortest TSA line.

As these initiatives evolve and become a reality, the Port, its tenants, and Seattle travelers will continue to reap the rewards.