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Ramping up

Good relations between airlines and ground handlers are crucial for achieving turnaround targets and Alan Dron finds that new technologies are changing some traditional ramp procedures
 

Those minutes between the end of one flight and the start of the next are some of the most pressured in an airline’s day – the turnaround, which can be as little as just 25 minutes. Carriers are under continuous pressure to ensure an on-time departure while keeping operational costs to a minimum.

 

Airlines are also aware of the value of having good ground handling personnel – none more so than the low cost carriers that depend on having the shortest possible time on the ground to squeeze the maximum value out of their aircraft. And that means working to create good relationships with the ramp staff.

 

In April IATA highlighted the improvement of collaboration between stakeholders as one of three priorities for the ground handling industry, the others being the harmonisation of global standards to improve safety and developing talent.

 

Speaking at the 31st IATA Ground Handling Conference in Doha, Qatar, Nick Careen, IATA’s Senior Vice President for Airport, Passenger, Cargo and Security, highlighted the need for efficient ground handling operations as an essential part of aviation’s efforts to meet the continuing forecasts for robust growth in airline activity.

 

He called for acceleration of the global adoption of the IATA Ground Operations Manual (IGOM), to ensure a level of operational consistency and safety across the sector worldwide: “Aviation grows safer when global standards are consistently applied,” he said. “IGOM is the global standard and worldwide implementation is our target.”

 

The airline representative body also urged governments to recognise the IATA Safety Audit for Ground Operations (ISAGO) in their regulatory frameworks. Adopting ISAGO globally would “foster harmonisation across the industry, reduce redundant audits, improve safety and enhance operational efficiency”, said Careen.

 

As of April 2018, more than 230 ground service providers had adopted ISAGO, with almost 450 registered stations located in more than 300 airports worldwide. Among airport authorities to have recognised it are London-Heathrow, Amsterdam Schiphol, Hong Kong Chek Lap Kok, Singapore Changi, Seattle-Tacoma and Miami. Low cost carrier Ryanair is one airline that believes in the benefits of having a good relationship with its ground handling agents and its rumbustious CEO Michael O’Leary has a strong personal allegiance to

the apron personnel at the airline’s Dublin home base.

 

Partly, says the carrier’s Director of Operations Adrian Dunne, that allegiance is because many of the Dublin ramp staff have been in their jobs for years and have looked after Ryanair flights as the Irish airline has mushroomed in size.

 

The bond between the ramp staff and the airline is so strong that Ryanair uses the Dublin ground crews as a laboratory for testing new procedures or techniques. If they work, the airline can then approach its biggest ground handling contractor, Swissport, and talk to them from an informed point of view about adopting the new measures across the airline’s network.

Swissport handles around 34% of Ryanair’s operations across its network, with the largest component of that being in Ireland and the UK. Ryanair also uses Menzies Aviation and Aviapartner, as well as other, smaller, companies. It also does its own handling at various airports, notably in Spain, notes Dunne, after becoming disenchanted with paying £3,000 to have a flight turned around by Iberia.

 

Asked if ground handling companies are facing pressure from their airline clients to keep cutting turnaround times, Menzies Aviation’s Senior Vice-President for Sales and Commercial Operations, Jamie Ross replies unequivocally: “Yes, we are – and rightly so. Our high-volume airline customers are always looking for ways to make their operations more efficient, and our job is to be responsive to their needs. “Handling passengers and luggage in the most efficient manner is central to the profitability of our industry, so there is a big prize for getting it right. As long as we can do things safely and without compromising our high quality standards, we will keep working with our customers to push performance ever higher.”

 

Swissport also pours effort into trimming time spent on the apron: “We work closely together with our airline customers to continuously enhance the turnaround process,” says Florian Eggenschwiler, Head of Innovation at Swissport International. “Service quality, efficiency and speed are aspects we focus on.

 

“Through continuous training and development, we support our staff to have the right set of skills to master their daily duties efficiently. Moreover, we use smart allocation systems to reduce idle time and automate decision-making.”

 

Swissport’s flight information system gives real-time insights into every flight that is handled across the network. “Therefore, we know right away if we haven’t hit our targets – so we can follow up much faster,” says Eggenschwiler.

 

Menzies Aviation has also responded to airline demands – particularly from LCCs – for slicker turnarounds, says Ross: “To support improved performance and consistency, we have also built a business process library and related training programmes that allow us to globally standardise our service offering to customers.”

 

The company uses state-of-the-art equipment and rostering solutions, currently being rolled out across its business, that provide real-time updates to its teams on the ground on the position and status of operational resources. “These technologies allow us to respond at very short notice to schedule changes or other tactical considerations, while keeping in mind the expectations of our customers’ customer: the traveller themselves.”

 

The first factor Ryanair looks at when choosing a ground handler at an airport, is simply availability; its first choice may not be an option. Price is not always a deciding factor, says Dunne; quality is part of the equation: “Do they have a ‘just culture’ policy? What was their reaction when something went wrong?” Having said that, Swissport is Ryanair’s ground handler of choice: “We have a global deal with them. It doesn’t guarantee them a contract, but providing their cost is in line with competitors’, we have a preference for them. It means that if there’s a problem I only have to make one phone call, not two, three or four.”

 

At the same time, says Dunne, Ryanair tries to make the job as simple as possible for its ground handling partners: “We put our turnaround procedure on to one page of paper, whereas other airlines may have 100 pages.”

 

No matter how efficient the ground handler, 25 minutes is reckoned to be the absolute minimum time allowable for a turnaround. However, even LCCs have to incorporate occasional 50-minute stops during their working day to allow for crew changes and to build in some slack to help catch up on small cumulative delays that may have accrued.

 

Ryanair’s task has become harder in recent years as the airline has started to move away from its traditional, remote secondary or even tertiary airports, where small numbers of daily flights made life relatively straightforward for the ground handlers, to major hubs, with their far higher numbers of turnarounds and consequently greater pressure on ramp staff.

Ever growing numbers of flights will undoubtedly put more strain on ramp staff in coming years. Technology will help offset that. For example, passengers will increasingly be ‘connected travellers’ who will handle more aspects of their journey through their mobile phones.

 

This means that departing passengers will increasingly be recognised via their phones’ signals when they enter an airport terminal and will then be tracked through the building as their phones communicate with beacons scattered through check-in, security, duty-free shops and gates.

 

Also, for instance, if a passenger has checked in baggage, but has not passed security by a certain time before take-off, it will be obvious that they will not make the flight. Ramp staff will then be automatically alerted, and the tagged baggage will not be loaded – thus preventing a last minute, time-consuming scramble through a crowded bellyhold searching for the missing passenger’s luggage.

 

Another small piece of technology is on the way: passengers will be familiar with the presence of the aircraft dispatcher, clad in hi-vis jacket, who disappears into the flight deck clutching a clipboard and load sheets during the final phase of boarding and is the last person to leave an airliner before the doors are closed.

 

That process will shortly change, with the load sheets being communicated electronically from the ramp to the captain via iPad-type technology. The pilot will append his electronic signature to the file and send it back to the dispatcher.

 

Other trends can also be discerned: “There are still airports around the globe with monopolies or duopolies,” says Swissport’s Eggenschwiler. “This prevents independent service providers from entering such markets. But we observe a trend towards market liberalisation. Menzies Aviation, meanwhile, envisages airlines increasingly concentrating purely on flying, leaving all other aspects to specialists: “We see a future in which airline customers are free to focus on their core product – flying passengers to their destination,” says Ross.

 

“Menzies aims to offer a solution for every other element outside the aircraft door. We are completely serious about delivering the same kind of service experience to airlines on the ground as they offer passengers every day in the air: namely, excellence, from touchdown to take-off.”

 

With a similar aim, IATA used the Doha conference in April to publicise its Ramp of the Future (RoF) initiative. RoF aims to bring together key stakeholders to accelerate the modernisation of processes aligned with a common vision for the future of ground operations. Key partners include members of the IATA Ground Operations Group (GOG) and the

Airport Services Association (ASA). RoF is part of the New Experience in Travel and Technologies (NEXTT) initiative being operated in collaboration with Airports Council International (ACI) to develop a common vision to enhance the on-ground transport experience.

 

The conference pointed to the modernisation of training for ground-handling as another key element. "High employee turnover is a challenge when you need to deploy a fully skilled workforce in critical ramp functions. New training technologies have an important role to play. This includes innovative virtual reality tools," said Careen, highlighting the success of IATA's plug-and-play virtual reality training solution for ground operations [RampVR]. 


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