The Scandinavian way

posted on 5th June 2018

Hans Bech, Chief of Airside Operations at SAS Ground Handling, highlights a picture of well-remunerated, well-treated and highly contented staff in Scandinavian countries. The SAS Ground Handling management structure also conforms to the same pattern, as David Smith discovers.

Hans Bech, Chief of Airside Operations at SAS Ground Handling, is proud of the “scary-looking, but highly skilled” staff who work for him at the major airports in Scandinavia.

Bech said: “I like to joke to them that many of them look like Hell’s Angels, but appearances can be deceptive and they know their jobs well. They are very capable of reading instructions in English, making accurate calculations and keeping their discipline.”

Most importantly, Bech has confidence in their integrity. “I know that they are not afraid to report it to me when something has gone wrong,” he said.

The quality of his staff, Bech feels, is linked to the high status of ground operations jobs in Scandinavia. “There’s a tendency in the European industry to use part-time workers, often from overseas. They often have less experience and are not as skilled as long-term employees.

“But in Scandinavia, most of our workers are still full-time employees. They get good salaries compared to other parts of Europe and they tend to stay in the jobs for life because the highest unskilled salaries in Scandinavia are found in airports,” he said.

SAS goes out of its way to employ workers for life. “It’s not a great idea to do a heavy lifting job like loading full-time for 40 years,” said Bech. “But we have a lot of staff who want to work for SAS until they retire, so we invest a lot in making sure they are able to work for a lifetime.

“We invest in keeping them fit and also in multi-skilling them so they can combine lighter tasks with loading. So, for example, they might do both heavy loading and push-back tractor work, or drive lots of cargo to the warehouse.”

Modern technology has helped to ease the burden of physical work. “We’re very focused on the equipment we are using. For example, we use rampsnakes so that staff doesn’t have to lift bulky objects onto planes,” he said.

The picture Bech paints of well-remunerated, well-treated, and highly contented staff fits in with the popular image of Scandinavian countries as models of egalitarianism. The SAS Ground Handling management structure also conforms to the same pattern.

“I don’t want to exaggerate the differences between Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, but I worked at Charles de Gaulle in Paris for five years and the distance between top management and workers is much narrower in Scandinavia than in France and most other European countries,” said Bech.

“As a vice president, I’m responsible for 1,300 staff, but if a loading team wants to approach me and speak with me, there’s no problem. They also address me informally as ‘Hans’. The free and easy communication between leaders and workers is possible because there are only two levels of top management between me and my staff. But in France, for example, if a loading team wanted to talk to someone in my position, it would be impossible.”

Bech fears, however, that the culture of full-time employment in Scandinavian airports may be under threat. Commercial pressures have intensified since the 2008 financial crisis and the price of oil remains staggeringly high.

SAS, he believes, will inevitably emulate other European operators in employing a higher percentage of cheaper, part-time workers. “Due to the enormous financial pressures, we would prefer to have most of our staff on part-time, but it creates a dilemma for us as part-time jobs for family members are not life-time jobs,” he said.

Bech predicts that as wages fall and part-time work becomes more common, Scandinavian ground operations workers will flee the industry. “If I look forward 10 years in Scandinavia, I think it will be very hard to get Scandinavian part-timers as people won’t be able to live on the income. We will have to get a lot more staff from abroad,” he said.

In his time in charge of the company’s Southern European operations – based at Charles de Gaulle Airport from 2001 and 2006 – Bech saw the trends which he believes will inevitably come to Scandinavia. “The tendency in Paris was for the rampside and cleaning operations to be done by low-paid foreign workers. And the same was true on the passenger side,” he said.

The employment of far more lower-skilled, part-time workers will profoundly change the SAS management structure. The workers will no longer be shown as much trust in their technical abilities, according to Bech. As a result, more layers of management will be required.  “We will need to introduce more load supervision,” said Bech. “We’ll see the types of management structures there are in many other parts of Europe. The workers on the passenger side and airsides will have low salaries, but they will always have supervision from more experienced, more highly skilled workers on higher salaries.”

Demographic changes in Scandinavian countries will exacerbate the move towards part-time staff. “Another reason we won’t be able to get enough full-time staff is because in the next 20 years there’ll be a huge shift towards people being on pensions. There will be a lack of people of working age which will affect many industries in Scandinavia,” he said.

Baggage handling at Arlanda

The repercussions of the changes in the industry will be felt right through this large and successful Scandinavian ground-handling company, which is an offshoot of the SAS Group. The centrepiece of the business is Scandinavian Airlines, the largest airline in Scandinavia and the ninth-largest in Europe.

But the ground-handling wing is also a pretty extensive and complex operation. With 9,000 employees, it is Europe’s third largest full-service provider of ground handling, servicing more than 160 airports in 40 countries. Each year the company provides ground handling for around half a million departures, carrying 74 million passengers and 400,000 tons of cargo. Major customers include Air France, Air Canada, Atlantic Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Ryanair, Singapore Airlines, US Airways, Virgin Atlantic and South African Airlines.

Most of the Scandinavian operations are staffed by full-time SAS employees. But, elsewhere in Europe, the company uses far fewer SAS staff and outsources a lot of the tasks. “We have three or four different levels,” said Bech. “At the base stations in Scandinavia, which are the airports of Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen, we only use SAS staff. Then, the next level of importance is the major inter-Scandinavian stations at Gothenburg, Bergen, Stavanger and Malmö. We use our own staff for nearly all the functions at these airports, too.”

Outside Scandinavia, the next level down is the major international airports, which have their own station managers and their own supervisors. “We then buy in the ramp handlers, check-in people and so on from another ground handler,” he said.

Even fewer SAS employees are used at the smaller international stations. “At some of these places we do have a station manager, but sometimes we will have a station manager covering several airports in one territory. That’s the case, for example, in Spain. At Malaga Airport, for instance, it would be too expensive to employ our own staff when we deal with only one or two flights a day. So, we buy in supervision for each airport from one company and source our ground handling operations from a separate company,” he said.

Right-sizing is a complex matter and differs from country to country because of local labour laws and local agreements with unions, but for the moment SAS has a high number of full-time employees. The workers’ peak hours are between 5 am and 12 noon, then during the afternoon and evening. Full-time staff is supplemented by part-timers doing a smaller number of full-time shifts.

At certain times of the year, SAS requires more staff. A large number of de-icers, for example, are essential throughout the Scandinavian winters. “We have some staff who work 120 per cent of a full-time working week in winter, then do 80 per cent of full-time in summer. They are all multi-skilled so they can do the de-icing in winter, then do push-back and towing of aircraft in the summer months,” he said.

For busy holiday periods, however, SAS needs to look beyond its full-timers. “At Easter, for example, we buy in part-timers from agencies for a few days, but 90 per cent would still be covered by our own staff at the major Scandinavian bases,” he said.

A further consideration when staffing SAS operations is the way that technology is changing the industry. This has had its greatest effect on passenger operations.

“Ten years ago, we used a lot of staff to check people in and make seat reservations. Now customers are doing it themselves, especially in Scandinavia. At Copenhagen Airport, 70 per cent of passengers check themselves in either by using the internet, or our service kiosks,” said Bech. “There’s also been a big reduction of staff doing baggage drops. In a few years time, everyone will do this themselves using automats and there won’t be any staff at all.”

But technology has its limits and some functions will always require ground handling staff. “A suitcase will never be able to walk to the aircraft on its own, so we’ll always need people to transport it to the aircraft. Also, around the aircraft, we’ll always need workers to unload and load up the plane, to put in fuel, catering materials, do the cleaning and so on,” he said.

While staff numbers have diminished for some tasks, other aspects of SAS ground handling have increased in scope. “Safety and security have always been our biggest concern, but the rules have got a lot tougher and that has created a lot more jobs over the past 10 years,” he said.

One factor which complicates staffing policies is the union border between tasks, Bech says. “For example, there’s one union covering gate staff and another union covering cabin staff, which means there’s always discussion over who will do a job rather than giving it to the best-placed person,” he said.

Bech says there are many advantages for workers in having strictly compartmentalised roles, but it can cause problems for companies like SAS. “We can have staff standing and waiting for other staff to stop doing what they’re doing. It’s a common issue throughout all European countries and, even though it makes life difficult for us, it’s actually understandable most of the time. In the US they think that in Europe we are not as efficient because of these strict union rules, but I say ‘have you ever seen a doctor help a nurse at a hospital’? Well, naturally, they say ‘no, nurses don’t do that’. And a similar argument can be applied to ground services.”

SAS does not incentivise its staff with bonuses for good performances because the company feels the reward system could have the opposite effect.

“We are aware of the tension between being disciplined in your work and wanting to do a task very fast,” said Bech. “If loading staff have incentives for speed, will they carry out all procedures properly? In any case, we don’t feel the need to reward staff because they are already well-paid in Scandinavia.”