The social distancing SLA and how to handle a post pandemic world


Airlines are already blocking out middle seats and changing long standing processes in response to Covid-19. Ground handlers must move now to challenge status quos and carve out a creative new role in helping carriers combat the coronavirus crisis says GHI's Max Gosney

‘We’re delighted with your OTP record, Mr and Mrs Handler. However, we noticed two check-in agents standing less than two metres from passengers and a rampie who didn’t wash their hands all shift so you’ve incurred a penalty under the Covid-19 clause of our SLA.’

An entirely fictional scenario: yet one that might well prove prophetic as the industry reacts to the strange landscape of the post pandemic world. Delta, KLM and a host of other airlines are now blocking out middle seats in a bid to enforce social distancing on flights. Other adaptions include more staggered boarding processes, simplified catering and passenger screening. 

All are clear indicators that Covid-19 compliance is now a huge business driver for carriers. What a wonderful time then for ground handlers to grasp the nettle and offer business solutions to airlines accordingly. ‘Social distancing at our station?,’ I hear you curse while reaching for the valium. And granted, the two do seem mutually exclusive at first glance.

Large numbers of passengers, an abundance of queuing and confined spaces: the station environment as we know it is the kind of place Covid-19 proteins get excited about visiting. That was our past, but it doesn’t have to be our future.

A bold reimagining of businesses processes twinned with strong stakeholder collaboration holds promise. We must demonstrate more elan than sticking coloured tape 2 metres apart on the airport concourse. Let’s be ambitious, unconventional and begin by banning the standard objection of: ‘that idea won’t work around here/in ground handling/this business’. Because there might not be a business if we don’t at least try.

The use of apps and other technology to liberate passenger journeys through the airport is a good start point for the brave new world. This concept permits individuals to arrive according to their personalised check-in slot (to the nearest second). Bags are already tagged and have been sent on a separate transit via a remote service in the hotel lobby. The passenger merely displays their pre-downloaded boarding pass, passport, security details and they’re on their way. No idle time, not even a moment to cough or sneeze – it’s enough to send shudders through the lipid membrane of a Covid-19 critter.

The same principle applies there on. Focus on streamlining the passenger processing time and there’s no need to keep people incubated in some kind of germ exchange experiment at departure gates. People arrive at the check in desk one minute and they step onto the aircraft a short time later.

There’s great inspiration and best practice to be harnessed by looking at implementing the lean manufacturing concept of takt time (build time). This matches the rate at which you perform a task to customer demand. So as one shiny new BMW exits the production line and heads for the customer’s driveway, another follows seamlessly on behind.

It’s synchronicity, science and requires assiduity and inventive thought to remove all the snags, glitches and bottlenecks that frustrate the textbook takt time. A disclaimer in these times of furlough and layoff is that exercises in improving takt times depend on highly engaged employees. Our people, the experts in their own backyard, know the extra PRM demand you need to cater for on the 1130 departure to Dallas like nobody else.

The same Nasa grade thinking must apply out ont the apron too. No longer can we simply throw ‘pairs of arms and legs’ at the turnaround process like it’s some mannequin assembly workshop. We must analyse every pushback movement: the arc of the passenger steps, ramp team number/skillsets/acumen and the utilisation of luggage space on baggage dollies in our quest for efficiency, quality and flow.

And finally, this is no advert for indiscriminate automation or staff cutbacks in ground handling. If anything, the post-Covid-19 station puts an even higher premium on talented and tenacious people. Our employees will have to be multi-skilled, pragmatic in outlook and unrelenting in their commitment to excellence.

In short, the kind of crack teams we know we can already count upon. Our choice is stark: be courageous, challenge status quos in your station and meet the existential challenge of Covid-19 head on. Or hang out with the ostriches, bury your head in the sand and hope a vaccine will hail a return to the good old days.

Let me sign off with the wisdom of the greatest mind of the 20th century as we contemplate the greatest challenge of the 21st: “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Albert Einstein.

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