A new association, Aviation Services UK, has been created to represent the UK’s ground services players. Its first Chief Executive David Leighton talks to ARGS about its formation and mission
The message from UK Aviation Minister Baroness Vere of Norbiton was crystal clear for ground service companies plying their trade in the country: there should be the “formation of a ground-handling trade association to enable better government and industry engagement”.
The UK undertook a review of ground handling in June 2022, with Baroness Vere outlining her guidance at the end of March 2023 in a letter to stakeholders.
“This review was established following the disruption to passengers at airports in summer 2022,” she wrote. “As Aviation Minister, my overriding priority is to avoid a repeat of the unacceptable disruption seen during summer 2022, when many passengers were severely delayed or had flights cancelled at the last minute.”
The government recognised that improved collaboration to enhance resilience and prepare for future challenges and opportunities was needed, but also that the industry was not able to bring a clear and collective message.
“While forums for collaboration at different levels of the sector exist, this is not always uniformly effective,” wrote Baroness Vere. “It is important that the sector plans appropriately for immediate issues, but also explores ways to understand and prepare for future challenges. For example, greater investment in infrastructure to enable automation and facilitate the sector’s transition to net zero.”
At the time the review was initiated in mid-2022, the government summarised that the UK was one of several countries hit by pent-up demand since the lifting of Covid restrictions for travel across Europe and the UK, with many passengers travelling abroad for the first time in two years; there were staff shortages after many workers changed jobs during the pandemic; and the time it took to complete essential background checks and training before an employee could start work airside was lengthy.
It was time, said the government, to take action to “minimise disruption in the aviation sector and protect passengers”.
Well before the government published its action list, ground service companies were preparing for the formation of Aviation Services UK. David Leighton, an experienced corporate affairs and communications consultant, was brought in to help.
“In December I was approached by one of the companies having the conversations about setting up the association. They asked me to share some ideas and guide them on what setting up an association might involve and how we might work together,” said Leighton, who has worked extensively in transport at Rail Freight Group and spent 14 years at Associated British Ports, latterly as group head of corporate affairs and marketing.
That initial assignment has turned into a full-time engagement, with Leighton becoming Aviation Services UK’s first CEO in January 2023, tasked with establishing the association.
At present, Aviation Services UK has eight members: ABM, CFL, Cobalt Ground Solutions, DHL, dnata, Jet2, Menzies Aviation and Swissport.
“Ahead of the publication of the government’s review it was clear from both government and an industry perspective that there was a need to establish an association to facilitate better engagement between government and the sector and to enhance coordination amongst key stakeholders across the aviation ecosystem,” explained Leighton.
“In simple terms, it was needed to give ground service providers, which are a fundamental part of this ecosystem, a voice,” he said.
The government review was undertaken by leading aviation consultancy PA Consulting. Several key themes emerged from the analysis:
• The UK ground handling sector is characterised by a relatively open market when compared to many other European countries, most notably Germany, Austria, Spain and France.
• Three types of contracts cover the provision of ground handling services: Airport Conditions of Use (airport-airline); Airport Ground Handling Licence Agreements (airport-ground handling agent); and Ground Handling Agreements (airline-ground handling agents).
• Competition exists across the UK ground handling sector with no restrictions imposed on the number of ground handling agents qualifying for operations at UK airports. Swissport and Menzies Aviation are the UK’s two largest third-party handling agents.
• Operating profit amounted to a 29% loss in 2020, albeit this had largely recovered in 2021 (-1%).
• Average delays and flight cancellations increased by more than 30% across the UK between January and August 2022 relative to the same period in 2019; some days saw significantly higher levels of disruption, such as on the first day of the Platinum Jubilee bank holiday when 4% of all UK flights were cancelled, up from a daily average of 1.7% for the year.
• The UK ground handling sector faced one of the largest headcount reductions of any sector through the pandemic, with total headcount falling by 57% between 2019 and 2021, as per data analysed from the Office for National Statistics. The evidence suggests that ground handling staff are not necessarily poorly paid but work in physically demanding operating environments at unsocial hours, compounding problems with recruitment.
• Performance at German airports also deteriorated significantly over the summer period in 2022; however, ground handling performed better in other countries, particularly Spain and the USA.
The report noted that the sector is not calling for root and branch reform of the Airports (Ground Handling) Regulations or how ground handling works in the UK. However, industry stakeholders continue to face several key challenges:
• Recruitment, retention, and skills: ground handling agents struggled to attract and retain staff in 2022; in general, working conditions are more challenging compared to competing sectors such as logistics and retail.
• Long processing times for airport ID passes: the industry recruited heavily over 2022 and the number of new airport ID passes required (a process managed by airports) became a major challenge to restaffing.
• Poor operational and financial resilience: common contractual arrangements and ways of working between airlines and ground handling agents do not, in general, incentivise high levels of operational resilience in the largest segment of the ground handling market (third-party ground handling).
• Ineffective collaboration: whilst forums for collaboration and communication at different levels of the sector exist, this is not always uniformly effective; sharing of best practice and operational data does not always take place between all stakeholder groups who have an interest in ground handling working well. For example, Airport Operator Committees (AOCs) are usually dominated by airlines’ agendas. Likewise, Airport User Committees (AUCs) do not always include ground handling agent representatives.
• Ineffective coordination: there are some areas where objectives between airports, airlines and ground handling agents are not supported by close coordination, leading to differences in operational standards expected by the various parties. For example, minimum performance standards determined by an airport are usually very different to those agreed contractually between an airline and a ground handling agent. This can result in asymmetric service quality outcomes across different stands even at the same terminal, complicating operational delivery.
• Infrastructure and investment constraints: almost all stakeholders have indicated that there is a need for greater investment in infrastructure to enable automation and facilitate the sector’s transition to net zero; however, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted their ability to do so.
The role of Aviation Services UK is to represent the services players as the government’s recommendations from the report are brought in, and give them a seat at the table, said Leighton.
“The members support the focus on enhancing the resilience of the sector over time,” said Leighton. “It’s not just about dealing with short-term tactical challenges. I am a big supporter of a risk-based approach in this regard, making sure there is a structured view of short-, medium-, and long-term risks, and then taking the right actions to address those various risks.”
In addition to the operational resilience work, the association has been responding to the UK government’s consultation on a 2040 zero emissions airport target, said Leighton. “It is important and there needs to be a coordinated response from the aviation ground service companies.”
Aviation Services UK is already being recognised as the go-to body for UK services players, with Leighton being appointed to the country’s Aviation Council. He has also met with Baroness Vere.
Being on the Aviation Council is an immediate plus for Aviation Services UK. This body “brings together industry and government to support the delivery and implementation of commitments set out in the Flightpath to the Future and to ensure that the UK retains one of the strongest and most successful aviation sectors in the world”. It includes CEO representatives from the UK’s major airlines, airports, NATS, CAA and aviation associations.
Leighton’s first tasks are to prepare responses to active consultations and take part in meetings of bodies like the Aviation Council. This goes alongside the practical steps of setting up the association, which include establishing its organisational framework and management principles.
The founding members are board members of Aviation Services UK and other members will join as the association becomes more established.
“The vision for this trade association is an environment where ground service providers can consistently deliver world-class, safe, secure and sustainable services to support a growing UK aviation sector,” concluded Leighton.