The commercial aviation ground handling sector is battling widespread challenges, delegates heard today at the inaugural AGS Global Networking Summit at the London Heathrow Marriott Hotel.
Panellists at the opening plenary session said these ranged from issues in recruiting and retaining staff to the impact of ATC strikes across Europe and the lack of a voice for ground handlers’.
Joining moderator and former IATA head of cargo, Des Vertannes was TUI Aviation head of ground operations, Dieter Bruneel, Airport Terminal Services (ATS) VP of sales and business development, Ingrid Braeuninger, Aviator Airport Alliance chief executive officer, Jo Alex Tanem, and American Airlines director of airport and corporate purchasing, Mike Garland.
In Tanem’s view much of challenges are because ground handlers’ have a lack of a voice and power in the industry. “As a ground handler we feel we are at the bottom of the food chain,” he said. “We need our partners’ to talk to airports and to use their strength. Most airlines are pounding us in the head with a service level agreement (SLA) and over performance.”
He used an example at a station where there was problems with baggage handling as no chute was available. He said his staff went to the airport about the issue and got nowhere, but as soon as the airline stepped in and arranged a meeting the problem was solved.
“We try to go to the airport and it takes someone with more power (the airline) to get the meeting,” he said. “We need the airlines to say how can we help you to perform even better and then we can be clear.”
Challenges vary for different airlines and handlers and also from region to region.
For Bruneel the biggest current headaches for TUI are infrastructure constraints and the increasing number of ATC strikes across Europe which are causing delays to flight turnarounds, which lead to a lack of staff and reducing operational efficiency.
“The strikes have been so high,” he said. “It affects all parts of operations. We really need to find a solution for delays from the ATC strikes.”
Tanem said a big challenge is the relationship with the airlines and expectations from SLAs. “We need to sit down with the airlines as say this is what you get and this is what you pay.”
A common theme discussed throughout the plenary was the trouble ground handlers’ have in recruiting staff and then retaining them, especially as many workers are paid near minimum wage.
Braeuninger said ATS, which has over 150 airline customers in the US, sees a lot of challenges with the labour market and its strategy is to highlight the “value” to employees of working in the sector and what they are achieving.
Garland believes the sector has been hit by what he called the “Amazon effect” as the e-commerce giant draws labour in, as it presents itself as an attractive, innovative business, even if the reality is different once workers’ start.
In the view of Bruneel, the ground handling sector and airports generally, need to do more to attract staff. “In the past it was pretty cool to be at the airport and that attractiveness was there, but it has changed. People don’t want 200-300 passengers blaming them and shouting at them,” he said. “We need to do more to attract them,” he added.
“In terms of innovation in our sector, it is low. If you want to attract people who are highly motivated, intelligent and skilled then we need more innovation as they will be attracted by innovation. We are doing things exactly how they were done in the 80s,” he added. “We need to make our industry more attractive.”
Bruneel gave an example of when he visited a station this summer and ground handling staff were still using a version of Microsoft Windows 98, which was first developed 20 years ago.
In Tanem’s view, his company faces numerous challenges when it comes to staffing and its strategy is to recruit staff from certain companies that fit like McDonalds for example, where he said employees are used to shift work and a system of working.
“It is hard to get people and get good people to stay. We are working with our staff to get them to stay, but it is difficult to get the heads,” he said.
Aviator Airport Alliance targets employing staff who are aged 40-50, as Tanem said they know “what they want” in terms of shifts and time off, while he also said the make-up of workforces is a challenge as at many stations only 20-30 per cent are locals, meaning cultural challenges exist.
The AGS Global Networking Summit started yesterday (19 September) and runs until tomorrow (21 September) and also features one-to-one meetings and a networking dinner tonight.