This is an airline that in today’s world of often incomprehensibly slick company branding has always been ‘what it says on the can’ in terms of recognition – Air Canada. It is Canada’s largest full-service airline and the largest provider of scheduled passenger services in its domestic market, the Canada – USA trans border market and in the international market to and from Canada – quite a force and keeping the airline’s ground services running smoothly in order to provide a seamless travel experience for the traveller is a big job.
In a world that seems obsessed by cost, equating price paid against quality obtained when it comes to purchasing ground services is a difficult task. “Air Canada is no stranger to cost saving initiatives,” responds Janet Wallace, director airport services, contracts and administration, Air Canada. She is a career professional with the airline, having been with Air Canada since leaving Montreal’s McGill University in Montreal with a Bachelor’s degree
Outside of fuel purchasing and aircraft procurement, ground handling services is a close follower in an airline’s spend, she says. “We like to be able to forecast our expenses based upon fluctuations in the schedule, with little tolerance for surprises,” Wallace comments.
The same goes for the quality of the services provided. She observes: “Air Canada invests significantly in the development of ground handling standard operating procedures, rule-based technology and the publication of ground handling manuals to ensure common practices.”
Wallace outlines: “It is the customer’s desire is to have a high level of service, regardless of where they are flying to and from. Air Canada aims to be consistent and to meet the customer’s expectations every step of the way. We do not want to see any location deviate from our product specifications.”
She points out that while the airline acknowledges that some locations may require local operating procedures that are peculiar to a certain destination, its aims “at providing a ‘cookie-cutter’ type of product”. This leaves the same impression when applied to any location. “We require the same look and feel of services at all times from our suppliers and this is what we demand they provide. Whether it is in our own backyard in Vancouver or in Barbados all our employees, as well as third-party providers, need to be able to pride themselves in delivering the same standard of high level services.”
Wallace responds to a question that asks how Air Canada can ensure that it always buys only what it really wants in terms of quality: “We have some long-standing built up relationships with our service providers,” she says. “There is a fine line between being the employee of a third-party ground services provider and being part of the Air Canada family,” Wallace notes. “We don’t easily differentiate; we don’t just introduce a new operation overnight. We work closely with our full service providers to ensure they understand our expectations.
“In addition we provide training oversight, to ensure Air Canada’s standards are met. Routine audits and station visits help close the gaps on any service failures.”
How does Air Canada measure the quality of outsourced services that it buys, particularly when this is work carried out by service providers overseas?
Wallace says: “Whether it is overseas or just across the US border, Air Canada’s customer metrics are shared with all our suppliers. We expect on-time performance, and adherence to the operating schedule in all the locations we fly to.”
She observes that Air Canada relies heavily on data from IPSOS Reid to highlight the weak spots in its operations. Canada based research company IPSOS Reid conducts both syndicated and customised research studies across key sectors of the Canadian economy through the biggest network of telephone call centres in the country, as well as the largest pre-recruited household and online panels.
Wallace goes on: “Delays, mishandled baggage, poor customer handling are all symptomatic of other problems (beyond the control of the airline). We work closely with our providers to meet targets in the areas they have the ability to control and influence. Ground handling contracts are developed in conjunction with service level agreements detailing Air Canada’s performance expectations.
“Providers that exceed performance manage to maintain the work for the long run, as well as seeing a little extra added to their bottom line. Providers that show little to no improvement are reviewed closely to determine if the operating environment (facilities, technology and equipment) has changed significantly.”
Horses for courses
Some airlines contract their ground services on a ‘horses for courses’ basis; others find it useful to adopt a global grouping approach on a one contract/one contact basis – particularly when operating overseas. “We have tried it all!” exclaims Wallace. However, the integration of Air Canada and Canadian Airlines and that growth of regional airline partnerships (as with Air Canada Express) also brings about certain challenges, which are only dealt with over time.
“Initiatives to go global are great,” she remarks, “because all locations and all providers are placed on the same playing field. Regional costing, performance results and safety shortcomings are all measured up. This allows for the airline to determine some of the best practices, in addition to addressing some of the issues.”
She goes on: “For certain, dealing with a single provider allows for a central point of contact and dedicated support teams based upon buying power. Urgencies are dealt with as a priority, and the product matures at a greater pace, due in large part to the focus.
However, at times ‘going local’ is the only solution. “Safety is the trump card to all our contracts,” Wallace emphasises.” Sometimes, although going to a local provider can demand more of our time and resources, it may also be the only palatable solution.”
Safety is a prevalent mantra within Air Canada – as it is with all the world’s major carriers. “We support initiatives put in place to render our industry even safer over the past decade,” she remarks. “I would say that a lot of emphasis has been placed upon linking up procedures, and reviewing the operations as a whole entity (ground staff, maintenance, fuellers and so on). Safety Management Systems – the guidance based on ICAO Document 9859 Safety Management Manual – has forced operational accountabilities within airlines. She notes: “Each work group’s hand-offs must be linked to those of the next group, to ensure operational integrity. Roles and responsibilities are specifically defined throughout each level of our operation. In addition to security requirements, technology has also greatly contributed to improving the processes. This is best demonstrated in the airline communities’ much improved baggage performance statistics.”
Wallace concurs that Air Canada is consulted fully during the setting of new rules and regulations by the Canadian or international administrations and authorities. “Air Canada has always been at the forefront of the industry in adapting new technologies that enhance the safety and security of our operation.”
“We continue to work cooperatively with security regulators and experts here in Canada and around the world to ensure full compliance with these measures.” She adds as an aside: “To disclose specific details regarding security measures would not be appropriate as it defeats the entire purpose of these systems”
In summing up, Wallace finds that there are airport around the world that are good gateways or bad gateways in terms of service. “We have many great airport operations, and few that fall short,” she says. “The responsibility is not only on the airline to raise the bar with the poor performers and make difficult decisions. Sometimes this needs to happen in cooperation with the airport authorities. Equipment availability, facility lay-out, ongoing construction projects can all hamper performance.” She concluded: “We all have to want to come together to make things work.”
* Together with its regional partner, Air Canada Express, Air Canada serves over 33 million customers annually, providing direct passenger service to over 170 destinations on five continents. It is a founding member of Star Alliance, the world’s most comprehensive air transportation network