Smooth operators

posted on 5th June 2023
Smooth operators

Abu Dhabi was the host for the 35th IATA Ground Handling Council, with 800 delegates discussing the critical issue of smoothing out ground operations as traffic booms after a rough 2022. Mark Pilling reports from the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Fingers are tightly crossed among the ground operations community that summer 2023 will not be a repeat of the disastrous delays and disruptions seen at some airports last year.
And confidence is reasonably high they will manage. The constant refrain from speakers and delegates at IGHC 2023 was while traffic growth is robust, and despite many still unable to recruit the staff numbers they wish, they will be able to cope.
Also, the hotspots are only in certain markets, mainly northern Europe, the USA, Canada, and Australia, while many other countries were hardly affected. But where it was bad, it was very bad.
“We know that airlines have done everything in their power to be ready whether that’s in terms of staffing, equipment, and working with ground service providers and airports around the world. Collaboration has been there,” said Nick Careen Senior Vice-President Operations, Safety and Security, at IATA, speaking during a media roundtable.
And while IATA is “expecting things to go smoothly”, said Careen, there are areas where it remains concerned. For instance, the continuation of strikes by French air traffic controllers continues to disrupt Europe’s air network, he noted. In addition, he called on governments to be ready too, singling out North America on the sufficient provision of security staff levels. This area was a “challenge” in many countries causing a significant impact on travel in 2022.
“We are expecting a good solid [traffic] peak, and a return to normalcy for months after what had been a pretty difficult couple years for you all,” said Careen.
Getting back to normal is important, according to Steve Allen, Chief Executive of dnata. “I think it’s upon all of us to make sure we have a focus on this summer, making it successful on behalf of all of our customers who have lost a little bit of faith in the airline industry,” he told delegates.

Being prepared
All parties say they are much better prepared this summer. “One of the problems last year was that we didn’t really have a coherent plan about what was going to fly, where was it going to fly, and which borders would be open,” said Allen. With such uncertainty in demand, the supply side sometimes got it right, but sometimes got it very wrong, he noted.
So, what are the answers? Longer-term, the clue was in the tagline of the 2023 IGHC, which was “Embracing technology. It’s overdue and the time is now.” From digitization to automation, the introduction of smart technology is viewed by many as a key component of creating resilience and efficiency in the ground services industry.
However, while all recognize the importance of technology, no-one overlooks the basic fact that people have left the industry in droves, few are returning, and recruiting new workers is tough in many regions.
According to Monika Mejstrikova, IATA’s Director of Ground Operations, a recent IATA survey found that 37% of ground handling professionals anticipated staffing shortages until the end of 2023 and beyond, and 60% felt they didn’t have enough qualified staff to ensure smooth operations. Additionally, 27% of respondents feared that their current employees would leave soon.
“Creating a stable ground handling talent base is essential,” said Mejstrikova. “And it can be achieved by making ramp work more attractive. We need to embrace automation to relieve staff from difficult and hazardous tasks, foster a culture of continuous learning and career growth and create a safe and inclusive environment for people where talents are nurtured.”

Faster approvals
Another common theme from those involved in recruiting staff is the time to train and obtain security clearances. “Onboarding is a critical process, but it can take up to six months to train new staff. That’s too long,” said Mejstrikova.
“By adopting more efficient and expedited onboarding practices, we can quickly adapt to changing demands, including seasonal rotation,” she explained. “Let’s focus on competency-based training with more online assessment tools to improve speed and efficiency.”
In addition, on the issue of security clearance: “By promoting mutual recognition of employees background records amongst the authorities, we can expedite the process and reduce redundancy,” said Mejstrikova.
“Revolutionising our industry with automation and new technologies we can attract a fresh wave of talent by creating diverse job opportunities and career paths,” she continued. “For instance, autonomous mobile robots can relieve people from performing physically challenging tasks, like moving luggage onto a ULD or onto a baggage cart.”
“Lastly, we need an industry that promotes career development and rewards years of training and skills,” said Mejstrikova. “Today, a ground handler with 20 years of experience at the airport cannot be confident that their acquired skills and qualifications are recognised. That’s crazy.”
In Abu Dhabi, IATA launched a Ground Ops Training Passport which supports staff retention and professional growth, said Mejstrikova. “It mutually recognizes skills and training across ground handlers, airlines, and airports to drive cross-utilization of skilled personnel supporting workforce mobility and standardisation,” she explained.
“The real beneficiary of the training passport is the employee. They will have access to their training records, allowing them to use their knowledge and skills for ongoing professional growth. An industry-wide approach to talent development will pay big benefits in terms of efficiency for all concerned. We need to empower our employees for success,” said Mejstrikova.

Global Standardisation
“Another priority for ground handling is the global standardisation of ground handling processes,” said Mejstrikova. “Standardisation boosts efficiency and more importantly, it boosts safety. Global standards are the key and the IATA Ground Operations Manual (IGOM) is a comprehensive industry manual that defines these requirements.”
IATA called for the ground handling industry to accelerate the global adoption of IGOM to ensure worldwide operational consistency and safety. “To support the efficient implementation of IGOM, last year we launched the IGOM operational portal where airlines and ground service providers can exchange information on their ground handling requirements,” she said. “Over 140 airlines have subscribed for the portal, and it is now also opening to ground handling service providers.”
“IGOM has proven to be effective, and its global adoption is now supported by IATA’s safety audit programme ISAGO IATA Safety Audit for Ground Operations (ISAGO), which is celebrating its 15th birthday this month [May],” said Mejstrikova.
Since it was launched in 2008, over 3,000 audits have been completed, with 255 taking place in 2022 and 300 anticipated this year, said Mejstrikova. “There are 195 ground handling service providers on the ISAGO registry, providing services at 324 accredited stations and at 206 airports worldwide.”

Technology showcase
The key presenter in the panel, “Revolutionizing Airport Operations: The benefits of automating below the wing”, was Harvey Tate, Head of Hangar 51 Technology Innovation at IAG. Hangar 51 is the airline group’s research and development arm.
IAG was out in force in Abu Dhabi explaining its innovative work, with various partners, to seek technology that helps reduce the reliance on manpower in the ground operations workplace, he said. The nirvana is a “dark airport”, he said, where an airport is fully automated, and you can “turn the lights out” because all processes are automatic, and you do not need people to see.
Tate mentions this to demonstrate how innovators think, but he acknowledges the challenges in ground operations which is a complex, safety critical task in a hazardous environment, under time pressure and resource constrained.
However, “through the introduction of technologies such as ‘machine vision’, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and robotics we could revolutionize our operation, moving away from today’s manual processes,” said Tate.
He described three specific streams of work IAG is involved with in robots loading baggage, autonomous and teleoperated vehicles, and the ‘smart stand’. The target is to reduce above and below the wing delays using these technologies by 30%, which IAG calculates could result in an overall punctuality improvement of 16%.
Lukas Skorupa, Executive Vice-President Commercial at Menzies Aviation, noted that with 100% staff turnover at some locations, the need to improve and automate processes is acute. Menzies is evaluating the next steps in its innovation plan and wants to partner with airlines and other stakeholders to further its technology development, he said.
Giving his welcome to the conference, Antonoaldo Neves, Chief Executive of host carrier Etihad Airways, said that as technology solutions arrive faster for the industry they help with the manpower challenges, but offer a more important customer benefit. “I think technology is not for us to have less people at the airport, but for us to have better customer experience,” he said.

Who pays?
In the CEO Panel, moderator Nick Careen commented that everybody agrees on the need to invest more in technology for under the wing operations but asked about the barrier to making it happen.
Steve Allen of dnata pointed to the outsourcing drive over the past two decades, which has seen airlines transfer their ground services to “what are now growing into big multinational companies”, and “airlines are expecting them to put the investment into that ramp activity,” he explained.
The ground service providers have that responsibility to develop their capability, but there is the squeeze of inflation and airlines concerns about rising costs, he said. “If we’re not careful, if we let that squeeze get too tight, that investment won’t be affordable,” said Allen. “We need to make sure that as an industry every part of the supply chain can afford to develop their part of the industry.”
This can be solved if the two parties work differently. “We are talking very closely with a lot of our customer airlines about a longer-term arrangement where we can work in partnership with them both not only turning the aircraft around today, but developing the future, as well,” said Allen. “And I think that’s a really fruitful approach that I’d really encourage most airlines to take.”
Over recent years, ground handlers have felt on the losing side, faced with low margins in a race to the bottom in terms of the price of their services. Perhaps the disruptions of 2022 have put a renewed focus on the need to rebalance the relationship?
Allen will have been heartened to hear the words of Etihad’s Neves, who said: “Collaboration is the most important thing in our industry. Without it our industry cannot make progress. As we start the summer, we are going to see the pain at the airports. It’s not easy, especially in Europe, but I’m sure with collaboration we are going to be able to deliver a great summer.”
In 2024 the IATA IGHC is heading to Iceland, taking place in the capital Reykjavik from 7-9 May.