Conference Review 2017

19th Annual Ground Handling International Conference, Barcelona, November 27-29

This year, Barcelona hosted the big event.

A large exhibition area, over 3,000 One-to-One meetings and plenty of specialist papers: with such ingredients, the 2017 GHI Conference was as busy as ever.

Conference Director Max Gosney started the proceedings by waving €100 in front of the audience. Not a tip, nor yet again the price of a pair of jeans: this was, in fact, the cost of a turnaround at an undisclosed airport. Deft subtraction of €20 notes, according to expenses incurred, left him ultimately with nothing. This was the net gain from the contract…

That the real world does not generally comprise €100 turnarounds must have come as a relief to the audience, but the stage show nonetheless served to illustrate the paucity of profitability within the sector. That’s well known, of course, and has been debated many times over the last two decades at GHI conferences. Yet…

Yet the insoluble conundrum still lingers. On hand were dnata’s Ross Marino, the CAA’s Andrew Badham and United’s Deborah DiSantis to lend their voices to this, and other problems, besetting the industry. It was heartening to learn that Badham had talks lined up with the ICAO on the state of the handling industry, yet the recent failure of a handler in the UK served to underline the inherent fragility of the whole airline/handler contract arrangement. Collaboration was stressed as being key to any future benefit, while flies in the ointment included staff costs.

Was self-bag drop a blessing? Or would it begin to nibble away at the workforce? And what about safety – are airlines truly concerned when signing contracts, or is it simply the price that dictates choice? Marino mentioned dnata’s philosophy in this context, a handler that has safety at its core.

 

Continuous improvement

Two words to chew over – and Cummins’ Mark Brown began with some graphic examples of the breadth of customer choice in the automotive sector before highlighting some home truths (an idea that saves £1m is luck, whereas a million ideas that each save £1 is continuous improvement). There was, he stressed, a real danger in not training and it had to be understood that different people required differing training methodologies, be it visual, aural, reading or kinaesthetic.

The subsequent (linked) paper dwelled on efficiency measures. Pablo Lopez-Bouzas, as Operations Efficiency Manager at Heathrow, has the unenviable job of making sure that the 2m flights that occur annually are all slotted into the operational fabric of the airport. Changes in mindset and the willingness to work in a team were the principal requisites, although he admitted that at Heathrow, around 8.5% of flights miss their turnaround slot. Delays have knock-on effects, so it was important that all stakeholders were involved. However, even a small change could make a positive impact on the status quo.

 

The big debate

One of the event’s highlights was unquestionably the open forum that featured ASA’s Jon Conway, Dirk Goovaerts from Saudi Ground Services, David Clark of WFS and Kennedy Law’s Nick Humphrey.

Perhaps predictably, ISAGO came in for much discussion, with references to a lack of perceived benefits, the rise of audit tourism, multiple audits and airlines still asking for their own audits to be carried out. Renewals were also felt to be too soon – and why, if a handler had certification, was a full-blown audit required again? It seemed that in terms of contract signing, there was no weight attached to an ISAGO certified handler over one that was not; and the cost of all this was becoming a burden to the GSP. The promised reduced insurance premiums had not materialised: instead, insurers were simply stating that until they saw less ground damage, premiums would not alter. IATA, it was known, remained convinced that ground damage would be mitigated by ISAGO adoption yet data had already been presented at the conference that gave the lie to that belief.

Whilst the industry was still a long way from mandating ISAGO, the irony persisted in that an airline was deemed the best judge of a handling operation. And for some at least, IGOM should be in place (and working) before ISAGO was rolled out.

Whilst no IATA delegates were present, the organisation sent in a message in answer to the ongoing dissatisfaction, maintaining that the second generation ISAGO would address such concerns - and more besides.

 

Profitability and ground handling

For his part Wolfgang Fasching, of Vienna airport, approached the subject of contracts in a novel way, making an analogy with a two player game and looking at the possible outcomes when handler and airline negotiate.

Citing the inescapable presence of the oligopoly (where a few players take a large market share) and the oligopsony (where a few large buyers can conspire to drive prices down) within this scenario, his Ground Handling Tender Game was possibly not going to usurp the many board games established in the marketplace – yet it presented the audience with an interesting angle on the contractual situation.

And from contracts to customer care: Vueling, as a carrier, had been falling short on its customer commitment and losing market share when Calum Laming was brought on board to try and reverse its fortunes. Working with the handler, Laming was able to show the audience how the (literal and metaphorical) turnaround had been achieved.

 

Voices off

Gosney’s series of recorded interviews with staff in the front line provided delegates with some interesting insights; with Wolfgang Fasching and David Clark on the stage to comment, a lively session ensued. It was gratifying to hear a provider talk about the fact that he loved going to work at the airport – and others state that the teamwork involved in getting a flight out on time was deeply satisfying. Some statements hit home, though: safety was always being preached, yet careless behaviour was still a fact of life. When someone was seen doing something dangerous or illegal, the general consensus was that this would be flagged up; ground damage reporting, though, provided mixed reactions. The spirit might be willing but clearly, from what had already been discussed at the event, the reality was slightly different. Whether or not there was a link between pay and competency was raised, as was the bigger question: what would you change if you could? Here, that old chestnut of pricing was once again dragged out of the fire…

The evergreen topic of ground damage was reviewed by Mario Pierobon, whose scholarly presentation took in causal factors and tried to illustrate one possible hierarchical model. Faced with an event, four steps, namely control action generation, process model, control action and feedback, came into play. He stressed that handlers needed always to consider what was working well; what was not working well; and how the status quo could be improved. In the follow-up session, Diego Alonso Tabares of Airbus considered the subject of collaboration as an antidote to ground damage, and explained to the audience the development of adhesive targets that could be affixed to the fuselage around doors and holds: these served as focal points for sensors fitted to GSE.

The human/technology interface was up for discussion again in the pursuit of zero ground damage incidents on the ramp. What was the significance of technology in this endeavour? Dorel Picovici, lecturer at the Institute of Technology, Carlow, stressed that technology needed to be used in an assistive way, and not looked at as a replacement for skilled labour; while fellow panellists were quick to debunk an imminent technological revolution – at least not in the medium term, asserted Pierobon. Tabares reiterated that we shouldn’t expect to see a fully automated ramp within the next few years.

The panel was divided when asked if regulatory standards would help to reduce ground damage. While Pierobon felt not, Picovici disagreed, suggesting that a lack of regulations gives people an excuse not to comply or meet the minimum standards. “There needs to be no hiding place,” he insisted. When asked to select the most influential action in minimising damage rates on the ramp, all agreed that technology was not the answer. “We have to understand the core problem and that’s where technology can help,” was Picovici’s view. “We need to use it to understand what the problems are and minimise them.” Pierobon agreed that the answer lay in understanding the problems and exploring different solutions, stating that there is no one-size-fits-all solution or hypothesis that can be tested. Diego concluded that the key to progress was co-operation and collaboration between all industry stakeholders and relevant parties.

 

Solving the skills shortage

As skills shortages on the ramp continue to worsen, so, too, does the incidence of delay, damage and injury. In fact, delegates heard, 62% of respondents to a GHI survey felt that a skills shortage was complicit in a near miss or accident on the ramp. In a panel entitled “The great ground handling skills crisis,” the causes and the potential solutions to the growing deficit of skilled labour came under the spotlight.

According to Simon Witts, CEO of Aviation Skills Partnership, partly to blame was the lack of awareness of the handling industry as a career choice.

“People don’t know what the jobs are and what the opportunities are. We need to communicate this,” he advised, inciting a call to action. Once people are on the payroll, however, there is still the ongoing challenge of staff retention, which sees many handling operatives leave within their first year on the ramp, explained Swissport’s Celine Heinrich, VP HR Europe. Work on the ramp is no longer seen as a career but as a temporary job, the panel agreed, with incentives to enter or remain in the profession outweighed by the disincentives of low pay and harsh environmental conditions. “We have to see these people not as two hands on the aircraft but as real people who want to grow,” Heinrich stressed.

This issue stems from procurement teams hiring the wrong staff, stated Amr Samir, CEO of Link Aero Trading Agency. He suggested that a recent graduate is the optimal choice of employee. “I prefer to employ people without experience. I look for attitude,” he said, adding that newcomers to the industry are also a blank canvas in terms of company culture.

Pay, pride and the opportunity for progression were deemed to be the three main factors in employee incentivisation, according to Samir. “You need properly educated people who spent money to be educated and need to make that money back. They need to feel proud of what they do,” he asserted, “Make them love the company. Have the CEO meet them.” Pay rises, of course, are made nigh impossible by cripplingly cheap airline tickets – and salary increases alone are not the solution, stressed Heinrich.

Is technology the answer? It was determined that, whilst this plays a significant part in industry development, it does not have the starring role and cannot replace trained employees. Investment in human resources - on which the sector relies entirely when technology fails – is equally important.