Inside or out, aircraft must be kept spotless for a variety of reasons: from customer satisfaction, to security, to performance, to efficiency
Before he came to work for OCS as operations director, Jim Niblock admits he could be a bit snooty about the cleaning side of the aviation business. Having worked at Menzies and Servisair on ground handling operations, he says he underestimated the skill levels required to do the job. “I’ve now got the greatest respect for their professionalism and qualifications so I’m certainly not looking down my nose at the cleaners now,” he says.
Niblock explains that the OCS cleaning teams have to run operations like clockwork, especially for short-haul flights, where turnaround times can be so fast they only have a few minutes to spare. But cleaning aircraft in the modern era of high security is not solely about removing dirt and trash. The teams also have to security check every area of the aircraft before any passengers, or crew, are allowed on board. Though not all OCS operations are in the ‘Secure Clean’ category, all employees have to be trained to carry out the full service in case it is required.
“The cleaners have to be cleared at a higher security level than the pilots,” said Niblock. “They need five-year minimum UK residency, and identity and criminal record checks just to get an airport badge to work airside. But for Secure Clean, they also have to undergo counter-terrorism screening at the highest level by the British Government.”
When the cleaners are audited, they are examined not only on their ability to leave the planes spotless, but also on their nose for finding test ‘suspicious’ objects concealed on the planes by airline staff. “There was a big scare last year when the Russian aircraft plunged into the Black Sea after taking off from Sochi Airport,” Niblock remembers. “It’s thought that an object placed under a seat brought the plane down. We reiterated our training policies as a result, but our teams are rigorous when carrying out physical searches.”
OCS provides aircraft interior cleaning services at three major British airports: Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester. Until very recently, it had the contract to clean more than 70% of planes landing at one of the world’s biggest airports, London Heathrow. But on March 1, it had to hand over its British Airways cleaning business to Omniserv after losing out in the tender process.
The loss represented a major disruption for OCS, which had cleaned aircraft for BA at Heathrow for 30 years. There are around 250 short-haul and 150 long-haul BA flights on a busy day at Heathrow alone and losing the contract means a reduction of 55% of OCS’s cleaning business in the UK. Nonetheless, OCS still has a major contract with Virgin, which amounts to around 100 flights a day from Heathrow, 60 flights from Gatwick and 50 from Manchester. And OCS still has a lot of business with other major airlines at these three airports.
“When bidding to continue working with BA, we had to be competitively priced to take into account our shareholders and what we were offering in terms of our high level of technology. We weren’t the cheapest option, but there was a price we could not drop below,” says Niblock.
OCS has invested heavily in developing its technological resources. The logistics of secure cleaning hundreds of aircraft demand that the company runs its operations out of offices in a similar way to air traffic control. At Heathrow, for example, the central office hub contains a bank of screens and controllers allocating jobs to team leaders. They also track the fleet of OCS vehicles, which includes trucks, vans and the high lifts that carry supplies to the planes.
“From a productivity point of view the control rooms are essential,” Niblock stresses. “In this business labour is 80% of costs and if your system is not right you won’t be competitive, or deliver the level of service required. From the control room, the operatives can track every move of the crews closely and see where they have reached on any given task. We audit all processes by tablet and we can look at every cabin and every employee and assess the performance against the requirements of each airline. We’re also using Inform planning tools to allow us to control the movement of labour.”
OCS offers different levels of cleaning. On short-haul flights, teams have to mobilise quickly as they have only minutes to do the job. After entering through the back doors of the aircraft, some operatives carry out the cleaning jobs, such as restocking washrooms, clearing rubbish and removing dirt, and others attend to the security side, which involves searching seats for lost property and suspicious objects.
On long-haul flights there is more time to carry out prime cleans, which can take about 90 minutes for teams of around 10. Finally, deep cleans are carried out from time to time. They take much longer because the aircraft has to be cleaned in segments. The seats are taken apart, all areas are thoroughly polished and carpets are shampooed.
After all levels of clean, OCS takes a record of which operatives worked on the plane in case a suspect object is found later. The team leader then signs off the aircraft as safe. To date, nothing terribly serious has been found, Niblock says, but the cleaners have located plenty of iPads and smartphones, as well as occasional ‘jokey’ notes containing terrorist threats. These notes always have to be reported to the authorities just in case.
Niblock says the BA contract was so huge that it was almost all-encompassing for the business. Now that its operations have been streamlined, OCS has more of an opportunity to implement even more advanced technologies and diversify its business. The company already has a joint venture in Norway on the cleaning side, with OCS providing expert advice, and there may be further expansions into the European market. OCS has many other businesses, including baggage scanning at Birmingham, immigration controls at Gatwick and Heathrow and PRM services at six UK airports. It is beginning to expand some of these operations into other European countries.
One company that has made an astonishing success of its diversified portfolio of businesses is ISS, the provider of facility services with more than half a million employees, making it one of the world’s largest private employers. A big part of the ISS business is in the aviation sector – mainly cleaning services, but ISS has branched out into other areas. For example, it offers additional passenger handling in the US, airline catering in Israel and aircraft security operations in Australia.
“Our main aviation business is cleaning, but it depends on which country,” observes David Hiersche, managing director of ISS Ground Services. “A lot of the time we work for ground handlers who subcontract their cleaning out to us. Cleaning is just a small part of their full handling services, which have peaks and troughs and because it’s not the margin bringer, they often prefer to subcontract it.”
The main ISS aviation hub is in Vienna. A new company started in Germany last September, ISS Ground Services Germany – a subsidiary of ISS Austria. From its European base, ISS has a major presence in cleaning services in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Norway, Portugal, Indonesia and the US, with smaller operations in other places. It cleans both legacy and budget airlines.
One of the largest ISS cleaning subcontracts is in Vienna for the Turkish company, Çelebi Ground Handling, which is the second-biggest ground handler in the Austrian market. On behalf of Çelebi, ISS cleans aircraft at Vienna Airport for Turkish Airlines, BA, Iberia, KLM and Air France, among others.
Unlike OCS, ISS also offers cleaning services for the external bodies of aircraft. How often these great shells get cleaned depends on the individual airlines. United Airlines, for example, has a policy of washing its aircraft every 50 days and has wash locations scattered throughout the world at 14 airports including Houston, Newark, Singapore, Hong Kong and Sao Paulo.
There are two main methods for cleaning aircraft, Hiersche outlines – dry and wet washes. A wet wash takes around 10,000 litres of water for an A320, so a dry wash is considered kinder to the environment. But dry washes have not taken off everywhere, he says. In places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi wet washes are preferred because of the amount of sand in the air, which means dry washes can cause scratches on the aircraft body. In most European countries, including in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Portugal, dry washes are more common now. But surprisingly, the UK market has been more resistant to the option so far.
Sometimes, it’s not possible to do a dry wash. Hangar space is normally required as weather conditions prevent dry washes being done outside. For example, hot sun dries out the chemicals too fast and they harden on the surface, becoming difficult to remove.
According to a technical spokesman for Lufthansa, dry washes are more effective than wet ones. “Thanks to newer cleaning agents, a resource-friendly dry wash every six months is enough, whereas a few years ago, wide-bodied aircraft had to be washed four times a year with foam and up to 13,000 litres of water,” he explains.
But the dry washes take more manpower to carry out. Every segment has to be covered in special chemicals, which are left on the plane to do their work for a period of time before being removed. “To date, there are no suitable machines available, so the entire dry process has to be performed by hand and it requires considerably more effort than a wet wash. Around 20 cleaning personnel work on a wide-bodied aircraft for an average of 24 hours, whereas a wet wash can be completed within eight hours,” the Lufthansa spokesman comments.
When a jumbo jet or an Airbus A380 is towed off to the maintenance hangar for external cleaning, there is plenty of dirt on the fuselage skin. A Lufthansa plane may have seen more than 3,000 hours of intercontinental flight in the six months since it was last washed. The dirt makes the aircraft less attractive, heavier, and less aerodynamic. Clean aircraft are therefore more economical and more environmentally friendly.
When a Lufthansa aircraft enters the hangar, the highly sensitive sensors and instruments are masked and the wheels are encased to protect the tyres and brakes from chemical solvents. Then the dry wash begins. The personnel apply a thin layer of special cleaning paste to the surface. The paste bonds with dirt, and after polishing and drying it seals the surface. Unpainted parts of the engines are left so that the surface material is not corroded. For the manual cleaning of the windows, special cleansing agents are used that were first tested and certified in Lufthansa Technik’s in-house laboratories.
Although a dry wash occupies around 450 manpower hours for Lufthansa, there are some logistical reasons for preferring it. During a wet wash, because of the sensitive on-board electronics, no other work can be carried out on the aircraft. But during a dry wash, maintenance work and interior cleaning can be performed at the same time. “It is good for the environment, too, with kerosene savings of up to 0.2%, and the dry wash eliminates the need for complex and intensive filtering of the water contaminated with dirt and cleansing agents. The only part of the aircraft that Lufthansa still cleans with water and cleaning fluid is the undercarriage, which is always extremely dirty,” the airline’s spokesman says.