Exploring new avenues of business

posted on 5th June 2018

Airline ground services providers are always looking for new avenues of business, fresh and innovative ways of making money. Ian Martin Jones discovers that WFS has found a suitable venture to flex its commercial muscles – it is preparing to handle giant cruise liners

Although WFS (Worldwide Flight Services) first set up in business in 1983 to handle air freight, it has since firmly established itself in the aviation community as a provider of a broad array of quality and reliable ground services, currently looking after customers at more than 107 of the world’s major airports.

Headquartered in Paris, the company has been involved in ramp, baggage and passenger handling for more than 20 years, says Olivier Bijaoui, president, CEO and executive chairman of WFS. Twenty percent of the company’s ramp and baggage business is in France, he explains, with the rest spread around the globe.

But this figure will soon change, he points out, In the latest of a line of acquisitions made over the years, WFS took control of Belgium-headquartered Aviapartner in June this year. Bijaoui, however, is unable to provide any comment on this venture until the antitrust proceedings are concluded with the European authorities.

A successful conclusion to the deal will make WFS the largest airport handling company in Europe and the second biggest in the world. It will also considerable boost the company’s split of the passenger business, for while WFS currently still makes two thirds of its revenue from cargo services, the situation is reversed at Aviapartner, which is the ground services leader in Continental Europe in the airport passenger handling segment, with the business representing two thirds of its annual revenue and cargo one third.

But fresh innovation is the driving force of a successful business, Bijaoui considers, and a big step made recently in that direction by WFS will see the company move into the world of handling passenger check-in and baggage for one of the world’s major cruise ship operators through the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal constructed on the site of Hong Kong’s former Kai Tak International Airport. This is a brand new facility has the capacity to berth two large 360-metre vessels, disembarking a total of 8,400 passengers and 1,200 crew – and its design also anticipates the demands of a new generation of larger cruise liners currently being designed.

In March 2012, the Worldwide Cruise Terminals Consortium (WCTC) was awarded the contract to operate the new terminal when it opens for business in 2013 handling the cruise passengers and their baggage. The WTCT grouping is formed by WFS, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Neo Crown, a division of Hong Kong conglomerate Shun Tak Holdings, which has core businesses in property development and transportation.

Bijaoui admits to being a little nervous as the new company prepares to handle 4,000 customers at a single check-in, instead of the usual couple of hundred people on a flight. “In its actual process, the commercial operation will be very much the same as our normal airline business; not very different to the sort of thing we do all the time. You just need more check-in desks in operation and more people to work on them.”

Reinventing the site of the former Kai Tak Airport as one of the world’s foremost cruise terminals, the project will create a sustainable new gateway to the city and a major entertainment destination for residents. Hong Kong’s Commissioner for Tourism, Philip Yung, observes: “The rising demand for cruise travel from the mainland is something that no cruise operator should overlook. In 2011, Hong Kong received more than 500,000 mainland visitors taking cruises from our port.”

Commenting on the whole move into handling giant cruise lines – a business ‘sea change’ if there ever was one – Bijaoui said: “We try to think outside the box and I believe if you don’t invest, you don’t last.”

There is a final observation from a man who heads a business that is operational in many countries around the world: “WFS respects the cultures of the countries we operate in. We call ourselves the world’s local handler. But whichever country you are operating in you have to put yourself in the shoes of the people who are living there. If you don’t do that, then no matter where you go, you are not going to succeed.”

Bijaoui: “We try to think outside the box”