Firing on all cylinders

Aviation is back in business, which was evident at the record-breaking 24th Annual GHI Conference held from 28-30 November at the FIL in Lisbon, Portugal.

The aviation industry has had quite an adventure so far in the 2020s, starting with passenger numbers collapsing in 2020 when the pandemic caused nations to close their doors.

 Proving its agility, the industry pivoted to cargo and kept the world alive (and their businesses afloat) until travel restrictions started to lift in 2021.

Passenger traffic took off again last year and is soaring after China and other Asian nations lifted their Covid restrictions at the start of this year.

Throughout all of this, the Annual GHI Conference has provided the perfect backdrop to assess the state of aviation and ground handling.

When the 22nd Annual GHI Conference was held in Copenhagen, Denmark in September 2021, around 400 delegates attended, which was incredible under the circumstances, and they showed that the passion for the industry had not died.

The following year, at the 23rd Annual GHI Conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands attendance numbers broke records with over 800 delegates through the doors. When the industry gathered at the FIL in Lisbon, Portugal from 28-30 November for the 24th Annual GHI Conference, records tumbled with more delegates through the doors by lunchtime on the first day than had attended the show in Amsterdam with 950 registered visitors.

Opening the conference on 28 November, Conference Chairman Max Gosney reflected on how far the industry has come, saying it does not seem long ago when everyone had to go through the hassle of Covid tests in Copenhagen (and again when they got home), and look where we are now.

The place for trade

Lisbon and Portugal have a long history for trade, Gosney said during his opening remarks. He brought up the names Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama, who were key figures of the Portuguese Empire and establishing trade between Europe and Asia, which Gosney called Globalisation 1.0.

Travel has changed since their days in the 15th and 16th centuries, with perilous sea journeys which would take months, if not years (if you survived) are now done by air in a matter of hours.

More than 500 years after Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery, Gosney said industry barometers point to the aviation industry’s own golden age but highlighted warnings from IATA’s Director General, Willie Walsh who warned of equipment failure, the skills shortage and industrial unrest making it impossible to deliver the service passengers expect.

Gosney said Walsh’s warnings are worrying, saying arrival and departure punctuality figures at European airports make for grim reading at 74% and 69% respectively, down 10 percentage points since 2019.

Citing the number of times he has landed and the pilot has criticised the airport for not having a gate ready or the ground handler cannot service the flight, Gosney said the industry is very good at playing the blame game, which does not wash with passengers.

Faced with challenges, Gosney said many in the industry see no room for altruism and that players must go it alone, while others will call for consolidation with the big getting bigger. Gosney said there is an alternative route of working as a team with individual players providing their skills.

“At GHI, this is the way we choose to play. We champion and celebrate the law of the apron, e pluribus unum, which means together, one. One aviation team in good times and bad. So we will double down on delivering premium conferences for all where the aviation community in its entirety can come together and do business,” Gosney told the audience.

What airlines want

Discussions started with The Big Debate: Leading the turnaround – what airlines want from ground handling v2.0. Early in the debate, Raed Al-Idrissi, CEO of Saudi Ground Services pointed out that the flying public do not know or care how many companies are involved; if things go wrong, they blame the airline or airport even if neither were at fault.

“You hear people talking casually about a good experience in one country and a bad experience in another country. When you hear that discussion, you realise they don’t segment the sector in the way we do, they look at it in a very broad view. This is where we should collaborate to provide a better service,” said Al-Idrissi.

Richard Prince, CEO of Aviapartner reminded the audience that we are a customer-focused industry and we provide a service to the end-user, who is the passenger, on behalf of the airline using the airport’s infrastructure.

Across its network, Aviapartner sees different challenges across countries and the stations depending on factors such as demographics and location but ultimately you need to provide a quality service or people will not fly.

Prince chuckled saying people said digitalisation and automation would transform the industry 20 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago then out of Covid but if the passenger needs information, they want to talk to a member of staff who knows what they are talking about and are willing to help.

“Is that person focused on the customer and making them feel valued or are they focused on updating their timestamp on their digital device because it’s about efficiency? In the end, it comes back to whether we are serving the need of the passenger,” Prince said.

Gosney asked whether we are focusing too much on digital transformation and forgetting that we are here to serve customers.

Hugh McConnellogue, Director of Operations at easyJet said technology is an enabler to deliver service and people need to remember customer needs vary, saying airlines cannot drive all of their customers to the app because airlines still need the customer-facing service.

He said, “Ground handling and managing the customer’s journey at the airport is largely the same as it was 25 years ago and largely the needs of the customers haven’t changed in that time. They want to book their flight, to buy the parts of the service they need and they want to engage in some way with the airline, because they don’t see the handler, when they are in the airport to understand what is going on.”

Hans van Engelen, CEO of RES2 iPORT said the technology for digital transformation is there but handlers are reluctant to make the necessary investments, to which Prince countered that handlers are paid to provide a service and the service specification comes from the airlines so if the airlines ask, the handler will provide.

“There is no reluctance from the ground handlers to invest but they will only invest in things people want to buy so who you are serving and what they want to sell, that is the economic model of the industry,” Prince said.

He added that contracts are often too short to make proper investments and airports are usually open markets so a handler can start tomorrow at a lower cost because they do not have the same costs such as staff or IT.

Staff retention remains an issue and paying more money is not the answer. Apart from a core group of staff, the turnover for new staff is regularly 100% a year with Prince saying of the 6,500 interim staff hired last year, none have stayed so recruitment is a constant task.

Salaries at Aviapartner have increased over 25% in three years, which is great for the existing staff who had no intention of leaving, but the new recruits are still not staying. There are other drivers such as working conditions and career path.

“If it were all about pay, we could fix the problem tomorrow. Anyone who operates in Amsterdam knows they are paying 25-30% more and it’s not fixed the issues, there are not more people available to work than before, the issues persist. Pay is important but it is about how we do the work and motivate and engage people about their career and prospects in an organisation,” said Prince to an applause from the audience.

Can hydrogen power the future?

Decarbonising ground operations is a priority with much of the focus is on electrification, but is hydrogen a viable alternative?

Arnaud Namer, Chief Operating Officer, Universal Hydrogen, and Serge Elkhouiery, Chief Operating Officer, Alliance Ground International gave a joint presentation on ‘Making clean hydrogen easy for aviation’.

Namer explained the options available about how to go from a research environment to a real operation at the airport.

Elkhouiery said AGI, which is in operation at 64 airports, has a goal by 2030 to meet sustainable aviation targets and was happy to partner with Universal Hydrogen on this venture.

Namer delved straight in, asking the question how do we make hydrogen aviation ready for tomorrow? There were major points to consider, he said.

Firstly, hydrogen aviation has an added value and to make it truly zero emission it has to start from the production of clean hydrogen at scale, then having equipment that’s able to use the hydrogen, whether that's the aircraft or ground service equipment at the airport.

Lastly, transporting hydrogen from the production sites to the aircraft is a complex matter when considering the production, liquefaction etc.

“So it’s better to be remote in locations where you actually have the source of renewable power where you produce your hydrogen, but then you need to find solutions to bring your hydrogen to the airport without trillions of dollars of infrastructure,” said Namer. “And so where are we at in terms of the journey today? Low carbon hydrogen production is scaling up hugely.”

He presented some slides from the International Energy Agency, showing all of the projects developing high scale clean hydrogen around the world, whether green hydrogen from electrolysis and renewable electricity, or other forms of hydrogen, which are low carbon with carbon capture.

“The scalability and the cost of clean hydrogen is dramatically going down across the across the world,” he said.

Since March, Universal Hydrogen has been flying its Dash 8-300, with a fuel cell powertrain in California, and is currently working with the FAA to achieve the required certification to start commercial operations by 2026. Two aircraft is currently being tested for flying the powertrain and unloading and loading the hydrogen modules.

On the question of how the company is bringing hydrogen from the production cycle to the aircraft, he said that Universal Hydrogen is introducing this concept of putting liquid or gaseous hydrogen into capsules/modules at the production site itself.

“They’re transported on an existing intermodal freight network to the airport. They’re brought to our partners, the ground handlers, that actually use the existing cargo GSE, to be able to move the modules and load them into the aircraft…So, we're bypassing the fuelling infrastructure of the airport and using existing cargo infrastructure of the airport to avoid any infrastructure costs for the deployment of hydrogen at the airport, whether that’s for the aircraft or for the GSE,” explained Namer.

The key point to using modules is that it does not affect the turnaround time of the aircraft. During testing both parties looked at the fuelling time and compared that with the actual loading of the two modules, which came down to being six minutes quicker for loading and offloading the modules, said Elkhoueiry.

Namer said how Universal Hydrogen, which currently has 250 aircraft conversions on order, is also working in partnership with JBT AeroTech where they are delivering the same modular concept of hydrogen on the apron to overcome the lack of infrastructure investment at airports.

He said: “We're developing Universal Hydrogen modules that enable the delivery of hydrogen to the airport on the apron without the need of infrastructure, and JBT AeroTech is, is developing their AmpCart for hydrogen, which is fuel cell powered, so it's able to charge the GSE, and can be located anywhere on the airport at the gate.”

Rise of the robots

Next up was Jeff Cardenas, CEO of Apptronik, educating the audience about the rise in humanoid-style robots over the next twenty years, even suggesting there could be more robots than humans over this timeframe.

The goal of Apptronik is to build more versatile robots than what we have today. “The easiest way to explain it, is today we have thousands of different robots and each one of these robots just does one thing. Our goal is to build one robot that can do thousands of different things,” he said.

He gave the analogy of a PC how it expanded from being a mainframe computer for a select few to now widespread usage in everyday working life. In the same way, he says, robotics will shape our workplace and in some respects could be the answer to tackling the global labour shortages plaguing all sectors not just aviation.

“This is not something that’s going to get any better. It’s something that’s expected to get worse. So, the challenge for automation today has been that if the labour shortage is so pervasive, how do you deal with it, right? What we’ve seen in the industries that were initially focused in warehousing and logistics and manufacturing, is people have been trying to solve this problem with spot automation – one robot to do this task and other robots to do the next, and so on and so forth, and that really just isn’t cutting it. And so out of this, has driven the demand from a lot of these early adopters of automation for a more general purpose solution. What if you could just have one robot that could learn on the fly and do a whole variety of different things? You know, that’s really the Holy Grail, and that’s what we’re after.”

Apptronik launched its Apollo eighth humanoid in August, and is one of the first commercial humanoids available, designed for indoor and outdoor applications. It weighs 160 pounds and can lift around 55 pounds. It has swappable batteries and can run up to 22 hours a day, seven days a week.

“When you see a humanoid robot, it looks very futuristic, but the best way to think about this, is really just an evolution of technology that already exists.”

To provide some background, in 2004, there were the first collaborative robots that could cope with and around humans, ‘human safe’ robots. By 2010 computing had advanced to have mobile robots.

By 2016, machine learning and AI entered the scene whereby intelligent robots could do more versatile things. Now it is accumulation of all this learning and looking at designing a robot with the same footprint as a human than can easily retrofit into our existing environments. Interestingly, he said there was more hesitancy towards robotics in the West than in the East.

“American people are generally pretty scared of robots, but if you go to Asia, Japan, or Korea, or other countries, genuinely, they have a pretty favourable view of robotics. So it’s interesting to have these sorts of cultural differences of how we view these types of systems.”

One thing he believes is universally true is when people are around these robots it captures their imagination and makes them feel part of the future. The last session of the day was Leadership: Mastering change management to drive successful digitisation, led by Desiree Perez, Senior Consultant, Leadership and Organisational Development, Curium Solutions US. She said that many college degrees that we have nowadays did not exist 10 years ago, which speaks to the change that we’re experiencing on a daily basis, and will continue to experience.

“It's unprecedented, and it will continue to be that way. So now the big question, what do we do as leaders of organisations in the aviation industry, that will, and is already encountering a lot of change?” she said.

She spoke about change does not happen overnight and that it is a process we have to engage in every day. “We have to become adaptable and responsive to change,” Presenting her point further with a graphic, she added: “Only 10% of the efforts in the change management process are actual technical efforts, meaning the implementation of a system, the organisational change that you might go through. But 90% is dealing with your people, dealing with the fear, dealing with the expectations with the perceptions with the reality, managing all of that, that’s 90% of the work that you do, a change management process.”

The future of GSE

GSE: Defining the future of GSE was a key discussion held on Wednesday afternoon and how the lack of infrastructure at airports was a constant thorn in the side towards becoming electric. When asked what can be done to facilitate that transition to electric, Valentin Schmitt, CEO of TLD, said it was important to examine two aspects.

“You have to segregate the driveline whether it’s electric or something else, and the power source where the electricity is coming from,” he said.

“I think the driver is electric, I don’t think we have any other things in the process at the moment, and it works, it’s good enough, it’s up to the challenge…the big problem now is to integrate those electric drive lines into the infrastructure and it’s this problem of which comes first, any customer in the world has the same problem, the infrastructure is not there, and when it is there the machines are not there, and everybody's waiting for the other one, then we can wait for that until the ice is gone, so you need to do something.”

He added what TLD is doing is putting its energy into providing a bridge between the airport infrastructure and the driveline, allowing customers to go electric today if they want to. This could take different forms as the infrastructure at airports is different everywhere. Brad Compton, Global Sales Director, Textron GSE, agreed that there wasn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to electrification.

“We've made huge progress from the manufacturing side and I think the airports are important too. But it’s just, I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all, so there is a little bit of work to be done to attack that [net zero] 2050 goal,” adding that electric is getting all the attention with hydrogen not yet emerging as a significant player due to airport infrastructure problems to accommodate hydrogen.

The subject of autonomous vehicles was touched upon in terms of their safety and sustainability benefits and how it is already being implemented with automatic docking solutions at airports worldwide. Mark Reppucci, Global Director of GSE Sales, Advanced Charging Technologies (ACT), said every partner was talking about AVs, discussing their potential for ground handling, moving people and other uses.

“Driverless vehicles is in our business. We are working on two verticals: airports and industry. We already have driverless vehicles without safety drivers, operating in the industry,” added Schmitt.

Jennifer Matasy, IAEMA Chair and Marketing Director, Aviation Ground Equipment Corp, believe these trends in electric and autonomous vehicles are synonymous with each other, with AVs improving safety on the ramp. “They’re both very important to the industry, equal to what the customer needs and the customer wants. If the customer is wanting electric/autonomous, the manufacturers need to deliver [it] to us so that we're not falling behind.”

Innovative solutions

When Keith Purdom, Global Customer Relations at Rsmart was asked to speak for the session Innovation – Cost effective ways to supercharge your station’s KPIs, he had to look for a definition of innovation, a word people use extensively but may not be able to define.

He liked Wikipedia’s definition, which is a new or changed entity realising or redistributing value. Prior to joining the aviation industry, Purdom did five years at telecoms giant AT&T, saying he was the token Brit on the innovation team even though he knew nothing about telecoms.

One thing he clung on to was AT&T’s question for every project of asking what good looks like. Purdom joined Servisair in 1993 and his boss invited Purdom to look at the operations with fresh eyes. Everywhere he went people would say “we’ve always done it this way”, sometimes for good reason but not always.

Purdom quickly realised people did not want to change if they felt their system worked and were worried that their job was at risk. “We need to be very clear about what is the outcome we are trying to achieve. If you are clear about the outcome, you can be clear about whether you did or did not succeed,” he advised the audience, reminding them innovation is not change for change’s sake.

Collecting data means companies do not have to rely on anecdotes, which helps identify trends and revenue leakage with Purdom admitting as an ex-ground handler, not all the revenue was collected. Purdom shared an anecdote from Servisair when he went into the crew room with the CEO at Manchester Airport and they asked a member of staff who had serviced a flight, which was delayed.

The conversation went something along the lines of: “Was extra GPU used?” “Yes.” “How much?” “No idea, I can’t find the paper. Anyway, Manchester United are on the TV so I’ve got to go”. Purdom thinks 14% of revenue was lost when net margins were low.

Data means knowing how long services take, which make contract negotiations easier because companies can back up their requests, with Purdom remarking that all languages have an expression stating knowledge is power, which he says digitalisation provides.

In conclusion, Purdom said innovation needs to a clear focus on the desired outcome, suitable funding, the authority to challenge people who insist everything is fine, proof the outcome has been achieved, support from management up to the CEO and to address staff fears that their jobs are at risk.

Purdom asked: “How are you going to persuade other people to change if you can’t prove the project you have already done has created or redistributed value?”