Setting straight ground handling priorities

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For a ground handler, no two days are the same. From the inefficiencies associated with multiple ground handlers at airports and a lack of standardised procedures, to unexpected, costly aircraft ground damage and ineffective resource management, ground handling has its own set of complexities. However, with continuous investment in advanced technologies and embarking on robust employee training programmes, ground handling companies are looking at ways to optimise processes.

It is estimated that for a large airline adding just five minutes to aircraft ground time can cost the airline up to $35 million annually. That obviously means airlines are under considerable pressure to consistently achieve on-time performance, while minimising operational costs. And one of the most deciding factors to realising on-time goals is the efficiency of the airlines’ ground handling operations. This makes ground handlers work in a naturally complex environment, balancing the demands of numerous stakeholders.

On 27th May, 2019, at the 32nd International Air Transport Association (IATA) Ground Handling Conference in Madrid, Spain, IATA called on the ground handling industry to focus on three priorities to effectively accommodate the expanding demand for air travel and air cargo. These include: continuing to put safety first; implementing global standards; and accelerating the speed of innovation and process modernisation.

“Effective ground operations are essential to meet the doubling in passenger and cargo demand over the next two decades. Putting safety first, implementing global standards and accelerating the speed of innovation and process modernisation are key,” said Nick Careen, IATA’s senior vice president, airport, passenger, cargo and security.

IATA laid stress on using innovative technology to modernise processes and infrastructure. This would be critical to efficiently meeting the expected doubling of demand expected over the next 20 years. The industry's vision for the ramp of the future has been outlined under Connected Ecological Digital Autonomous Ramp (CEDAR).

Luxair Cargo - cargo loading

Careen further said, “Ground handling operations have increased in parallel with airport development and traffic growth, corresponding to larger numbers, sizes and types of aircraft. Also, the demand to achieve minimised turnaround and stand occupancy times has increased. This has led to a rise in simultaneous ground handling operations and the support equipment required. Industry collaboration is essential to maintaining and improving safety in this complex environment.”

Keeping up with the industry body’s directive, leading ground handling players are putting their best foot forward to adopt cutting-edge technology to stay ahead of competition and to optimise processes. This is because innovation and the use of the latest technologies are now not nice-to-haves any more, they are essential to keep up with the massive growth the industry enjoys. The industry will also need to take innovative measures to ensure continued smooth operations.

“At dnata, we rigorously challenge our processes and work practices by applying leading technology in our own operations. We are modernising and adding new capabilities to our GSE inventory. A policy of introducing telematic technology to relevant vehicle fleets will bring major benefits in terms of safety and operational performance. Speed limiters and collision avoidance systems will also further improve safety, and we are looking at both retrofitting such capabilities to existing GSE as well as inclusion on any new equipment purchases,” informed Janis Balkins, regional chief executive officer, new and emerging markets, dnata.

In the past 12 months dnata has won over 100 new contracts mainly in key markets, including Australia, Canada, Italy, the US, and the UK, and coupled it with solid customer retention. Today, dnata provides ground handling and cargo services at 88 airports in 14 countries.

Customers today expect live updates about the whereabouts of their shipments as well as the expected delivery at their warehouse, the same goes for prioritisation of the handling down to individual shipments. Without a good IT tool, it is difficult to manage the processes by considering the prioritisations requested by customers and industry players are realising the need to digitalise their processes.

Luxair Cargo directions

“We are currently digitalising our ramp processes in order to get rid of all the paper forms used during the turnaround but also to reduce the communication time, have a live overview of the situation, detect any deviation from the initial plan earlier and facilitate the data transfer to other concerned departments. By doing this, we will reduce the workload of the ground crews so that they can concentrate their efforts on their initial job and less on the paperwork. Less paper means also more accurate information and savings in manual data collection for other departments,” said Antoine Decker, manager - business development and contracts, Luxair Cargo.

Swissport has an entire portfolio of standard end-to-end processes that have been deployed across its stations. These standardised processes involve technology, but as well go much further than that alone. “The key really is to match the right organisation, apply the right processes and to be supported with the right technology. The Swissport cargo kiosk is one of the initiatives where Swissport is able to digitise part of the process, while reducing cost for our customers and forwarders as waiting times are reduced,” explained Hendrik Leyssens, vice president global operations for cargo, Swissport.

Another leading ground handler Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Limited (HACTL) has been “married to technology” since its birth over 40 years ago. Recalling its achievements in adopting technology, Wilson Kwong, chief executive, HACTL said, “We devised and built Hong Kong’s first community system linking customs, airlines and freight agents, and it is now in its third iteration, and still subject to regular upgrades and new features. Physically speaking, SuperTerminal1 is still probably the largest and most automated general purpose air cargo handling facility in the world, driven by sophisticated IT systems. New technological solutions such as mobile computing and our recently-launched Smart Cargo Locating system are transforming our business. Without technology, there would be no HACTL.”

Laying emphasis on the innovations that the ground handler has embarked upon, Kwong added, “Innovation and efficiency are in our DNA, originating from our creation as the solution to poor utilisation of space and resources at the old Kai Tak airport. If every handling facility operated on the same basis as our SuperTerminal1, global air cargo would look very different. That said, there is still scope for better and greater use of technology – such as automous vehicles – and our performance enhancement team will continue to look for ways to innovate and improve.”

HACTL uses mobile computing to enable ramp handling staff to update its central systems at every step in the handling process; they also receive their instructions on the move from the system, which allocates resources to ensure all aircraft are handled expeditiously to maintain their tight turnround schedules. This is essential when you handle up to 15 wide-body freighters at the same time, as HACTL often does.

Need for airport infrastructure overhaul
The consistent growth in passenger and cargo traffic has started to exceed the growth of capacity the facilities offer, which, in certain regions, has already resulted in congestion and the forced limitation of services. Ground handlers complain that airport infrastructure significant improvement and hence investments need to made in the right direction.

“Many facilities, which were built decades ago, do not meet today’s requirements, simply because they were designed to serve a different business model. The low-cost segment is rapidly growing, the needs, preferences and priorities of airlines and passengers are changing, and sustainability is becoming increasingly important.  These must be reflected in the infrastructure as well. Bold investment is necessary, which, at the end of the day, will pay off and improve the efficiency and competitiveness of airports. The industry will need to find ways to create more capacity or use what exists more efficiently, otherwise the growth will slow down despite the increasing demand,” said dnata’s Balkins.

Swissport’s Leyssens spoke in agreement with Balkins. “Airport infrastructure is a main issue – in many airports, the infrastructure is outdated and can use a refresher. Some of the facilities are not up to today’s standard, e.g. with regards to security, leading to additional cost and inefficiencies. Additionally, truck congestion is a big issue across many airports, and is an issue that we can only tackle if the airport community works together.”

Hendrik further added that there is definitely room for further growth if airport infrastructure grows as well. “However, in order to increase throughput capacity through our current facilities, Swissport is rolling out an infrastructure blueprint across the globe, investing multi-million amounts into our cargo facilities. Look at our cargo facility in Brussels that we are renovating and will increase in throughput capacity as well.”

Swissport is currently investing in a state-of-the-art air cargo facility at Brussels Airport. While Brussels Airport Company is constructing the building, Swissport has signed a long-term lease and is investing several million euros in equipment and fittings for the new facility. The building will consist of a 25,000 square metre warehouse, a material handling system, office space and 3,620 square metre of end-to-end facilities in the new Swissport Pharma Center.

The new Swissport Pharma Center will feature an increased surface area for pharmaceutical products. Ambient pharma space (+15° to +25°C) will more than triple from 800 square metre to 2,620 square metre. Additionally, a 1,000 square metre cooling facility (+2° to +8°C) will be available. With its new end-to-end cool chain, Swissport intends to further grow its share in the pharma air transport business in Brussels and worldwide.

Ecommerce glut
While the international e-commerce boom has been good for air cargo, the sheer volume of e-commerce packages has put considerable pressure on ground handlers. It has also opened up several opportunities for ground handlers and other third party logistics providers alike. A challenge is to match the relatively high investments that this kind of business needs with the volatility in the market.

Ecommerce Logistics Summit 2019“E-commerce is changing the handling concept by adding complexity in customs regulations but also being more manpower intensive when it comes to the handling of high amounts of mail bags,” said Decker.

As the volume of e-commerce products rise, more carriers are investing in mail handling software systems with hand held scanners to track, trace and produce invoices. “With the growth of e-commerce companies, we believe this sector will continue to grow, or to be more specific, the airport to airport e-commerce sector will continue to grow.  There will be big changes coming to the ‘last mile delivery’ of e-commerce when the use of drones takes over,” said Balkins.

HACTL is already heavily involved in e-commerce through its value-added logistics subsidiary, Hacis – which is now handling around 3,000 mailbags daily, containing e-commerce mail packages. This business is likely to continue growing as the world buys more and more online; there are still new potential markets that are relatively untapped, such as straight-to-patient medication, and B2B e-commerce. “We are very confident of playing an increasing role in this growing market. And, if we can continue to proactively promote Hong Kong as an e-commerce hub and Hacis as an e-commerce solution, HACTL’s airline customers will continue to benefit from increased traffic,” said Kwong.

Ground handling processes will continue to challenge the airlines and ground handlers but the implementation of a holistic view on the turnaround processes, emphasis on best practices and advanced optimisation solutions are making a difference. This, in effect, will help airlines and their ground handling partners improve performance levels, optimise resources and manage their operating costs.

This story was originally published in STAT Trade Times' August 2019 issue.

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