A six-day strike by Aviapartner management and baggage handling staff at Brussels Airport in October caused chaos for numerous carriers – but not TUI fly Belgium, part of Hanover-headquartered TUI, which kept running under a temporary self-handling licence
Brussels Airport said 960 flights handled by Aviapartner had to be cancelled during the period of the strike, affecting close to 115,000 passengers.
Dieter Bruneel, director ground operations at TUI fly Benelux, explains that while 26-31 October was “a hard time” for the airline, it managed to work around the problem.
“Due to an excellent collaboration between our different departments we have been able to achieve a result that is unique in the world,” he says.
“For almost seven days we operated under a self-handling licence. We handled 55 departing flights and 55 arriving flights at Brussels Airport under our self-handling licence (Boeing 737, Embraer E190 and even Boeing 787).
“In total 8,958 TUI passengers departed from Brussels and 8,476 passengers arrived in Brussels during this period. This resulted in us loading 7,862 pieces of luggage and offloading 8,132 pieces of luggage.
“Some flights were also diverted to regional airports, which led to 170 buses bringing our passengers to and from Brussels. This strike showed a big collegiality: a lot of colleagues from our other offices, such as in Ostend, came to help us landside to support the bussing operation,” Bruneel adds.
Obtaining the self-handling licence was not easy, he recalls. There is a legal framework requiring a detailed plan including risk analysis and prevention, an emergency plan and various support measures; training is another prerequisite to ensure a carrier’s staff are fit to undertake ground handling tasks.
It is possible to apply for permission to carry out specific categories of handling activities; for instance, TUI’s licence covers baggage handling, ramp, passenger and catering services.
Once all of the documentation and training is in place, the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) evaluates the file and decides whether or not to approve the airline’s application.
“The licence is only valid in case of disruption to your handling services,” Bruneel points out. “You have to activate it by notifying the BCAA so they can come and check that everything is operating correctly.”
“We have had our self-handling licence for about three years and there is no expiry date, but the BCAA may ask for additional information – for instance, if your organisational design changes – and they can suspend or revoke the licence at any time.”
TUI Ground Operations has an internal training programme run by certified trainers. New staff receive basic training when they join the company. When the self-handling licence is activated, anyone who will be redeployed on the tarmac receives a safety briefing.
In addition, they are always connected to a team leader, who is not only trained in self-handling but also has a background in ground handling. Those operating vehicles or hi-loaders, for instance, have the proper qualifications.
So, Bruneel says, “it may appear simple, or like a bit of a ‘cowboy’ way of doing things at first sight, to get our office staff out onto the tarmac to handle baggage, but in fact there is a lot of preparation, structure and training behind it. At all times we need to meet the set safety and compliance criteria, just like any other third-party ground handler we contract.”
Temporary self-handling licences are very unusual, he observes, citing two main reasons. First, self-handling requires a great deal of flexibility in an airline’s team if it is to work. During the ground handler’s strike in Brussels, TUI staff from various departments were actively volunteering to help, day or night, to keep passengers moving. That might not be the case at every airline.
Second, the criteria outlined above for obtaining a self-handling licence are by necessity difficult to meet, not only to ensure the safety of staff and passengers alike but also to prevent delays or disruption to the airport in general.
Would TUI consider moving to a self-handling model on a permanent basis? With regard to Brussels Airport, Bruneel considers: “We have 15 aircraft leaving at the same time in the mornings – but after that, people would be idle, so at first sight it wouldn’t be cost-efficient for us to self-handle there permanently.
“The ground handling environment in Europe is changing. I believe we will see more consolidation, which will lead to opportunities. It’s not just a choice between self-handling and using a third-party provider: other possibilities will arise and at TUI we are always looking for opportunities and innovative solutions,” he hints. |