Airport Services Association (ASA) appointed Fabio Gamba as its new Director General in April and he spoke with ARGS at IGHC in Madrid about his plans in the hot seat
The challenges that the ground handling industry face are arguably as high as they have ever been, due to growing operational pressures from ever-increasing air traffic growth, recruitment difficulties and tight margins.The Airport Services Association (ASA) has a key role to play in representing its members globally in challenging times.
In April, the association’s leadership team changed when Fabio Gamba, Managing Director of Airline Catering Association (ACA), was appointed Director General, replacing Jon Conway, who stepped down after completing his two-year term.Meanwhile, dnata divisional Senior Vice President Steve Allen was elected as Chairman, replacing Sally Leible, President of Airport Terminal Services, who stepped down after serving since 2017.Gamba has vast experience working for associations, as prior to his position as Managing Director of ACA, he was the CEO of the European Business Aviation Association and Deputy Secretary General of the Association of European Airlines.
The ‘tripod’ of Success
Speaking on the sidelines at IGHC in Madrid, Gamba explained that his approach to leading an association is threefold. He likes to look at associations as a ‘tripod’.On one side you have lobbying and political activities. Upholding the interests of members with other stakeholders such as IATA and ACI, and regulators like the European Commission and EASA, which is now doing rule-making in ground handling (GH) for the first time, is integral for ASA.
“This is the first key responsibility for an association – the political part,” Gamba said. “We aim to strengthen the reputation of the ground handling industry by addressing regulatory issues that proliferate in all corners of the world.”
In Gamba’s view, he sees this as being the most important part of ASA but notes that if it wants to be successful it cannot be the only one. Political activities are only one (important) side of the coin.
The second part of this ‘tripod’, is generating clear added value and exclusive benefits for members-only, something which he is keen to focus on.
“There are different avenues to consider – one being training,” Gamba said. “There are plenty of training courses available out there for ground handlers, but of varying quality.
With an ASA accreditation programme, we would like to rubber-stamp and endorse those which are of superior quality based on if they are following a quality training system and given industry standards.”
The final part of the ‘tripod’ is communication. “It is important that the industry knows who we are, what we do and how we do it. This is how the ground handling industry can come together to get a seat at the table and influence decision making at all levels,” Gamba explained.
Importance and Relevance
ASA certainly does not have the same clout as other industry associations within the aviation industry. The likes of IATA, ACI, NBAA and TIACA are much more widely known and the awareness of them is a lot higher.
“Even though we (ASA) are doing lots of things, we are not always capable of showing our real importance and a lot of people take it for granted,” he said. “An association should be a natural thing for any stakeholder belonging to our industry. You need someone to represent your interests and companies should want to be part of it because other members share the same industry issues as you.”
“It’s important to talk about the challenges that the entire industry is facing and try to find some common ground. You can only do this when there is an antitrust environment, which a trade body can provide.”
ASA has around 60 members, which is only a fraction of the ground service providers (GSP) around the world and compared to other aviation associations this seems like a relatively low number.
But does Gamba see growing the membership as a priority?
“Increasing membership is not an objective per se, but there is certainly strength in numbers. The more representative we are of the industry, the more visibility and the more clout we have. When we speak to potential members the question we always ask is, ‘Can you afford not to be a member?’.”
ASA’s relationship with IATA is important as IATA takes a very active role in ground handling, including running the key industry event IGHC, but it is also important ASA has its own identity.
Gamba said IATA is following “pretty much everything that has to do with ground handling. Airlines have an obvious interest in being closely involved in ground handling matters mostly from a flight safety perspective, and below-the-wings activities are an essential element of it. A lot of activities ASA is considering doing are already somehow being done by IATA, with more means and clout, and we’re absolutely fine with that.”
“Actually, we are looking at how we can best complement, rather than replicate, what they are doing,” he said, “so as to ensure a win-win situation. “
ASA and ACA
Along with his role as Director General of ASA, Gamba is also Managing Director of ACA, which, while similar in some ways, relates to a very different part of the supply chain.
Gamba said that while the customers are the same, and the constraints are fundamentally also the same, there are some crucial differences.
“The most important thing for a caterer is food safety, just as safety is paramount for the ground handling industry. For airlines it is ground damage, so essentially safety is at the core of the business in one or the other case.”
One similarity with airline catering and ground handling that Gamba notes, is that passengers associate the food they eat with the company they fly with in the same way they associate the company with their luggage.
There are differences between the two though. Airlines place a high importance on in-flight catering since the food is more personal to their customers, whereas ground handling is only ever talked about if luggage is late, lost or damaged.
“As caterers we can provide anything – Michelin star meals if that is what the airline wants. The difference between both is that the company will use catering as a brand differentiator,” Gamba said. “They will say we need to be better than our competitors, as we are using the same aircraft and flying to the same airports and using the same seats, so how can we differentiate us from our competitors?”
“People who have been nicely fed will remember that. It is an important brand differentiator. This has not always been the case, and catering is probably one of the first operating costs you want to get rid of when the cycle is down, but similarly it is one of the first things you want to boost when the cycle is up.”
On the other hand, ground handling is something every airline needs regardless of the cycle, unless they self-handle. But in today’s marketplace 70-75 per cent of handling is outsourced and done by independent GSPs.
“It is less of a brand differentiator, but that doesn’t mean ground handlers are off the hook. On the contrary, if one ground handler isn’t doing a proper job, in today’s extremely competitive environment, believe me, the sanction would be immediate and the provider instantaneously kicked out of the market, there is no doubt about it,” Gamba said.
“Generally speaking, you have a similar offer between providers. The airline picks the most efficient one, but again it is less of a brand differentiator as the public does not automatically associate a ground handling company with the airline.”
Margins are notoriously tight for most GSPs and the business model is not conducive to anything else in Gamba’s view. “If it continues like this, pressure, especially on smaller providers, will become unbearable and more and more will simply disappear in the near future. So you will see another wave of consolidation going on.” he said.
“Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen,” he added “but what is sure is that we will witness the emergence of truly global ground handling providers. The advantages are that there will tend to be a certain homogeneity in the provision of ground handling across the globe. The disadvantages, at least from an airline’s point of view, are that there will be less choice, and hence less means to keep up the same level of pressure that prevails today. This is certainly a bit of a paradox, but that is where the current system is pushing the industry to. “