A look back at GSE & RAMP-OPS AFRICA

posted on 2nd October 2019
A look back at GSE & RAMP-OPS AFRICA

A welcome reception was held on the evening of Monday 10 June at the hotel to greet delegates, exhibitors and sponsors alike, the first opportunity for all involved in GSE & RAMP-OPS AFRICA to begin that all-important networking that has always been such a key feature of the annual GSE & Ramp-Ops event.

Paul Drever, responsible for GSE engineering and standards at globally active handler Menzies Aviation, chaired the conference. He opened proceedings on the Tuesday to welcome those present in the busy conference room, all of whom were eager to benefit from the knowledge and experience of the industry experts who would offer their thoughts on different ramp-related topics over the next day and a half.

The speakers were to talk about a wide range of issues facing ramp operators, GSE users and equipment suppliers – and especially on subjects that are particularly relevant to those who are either already active in Africa or who plan to expand their operations to the continent.

Drever himself has no shortage of experience of GSE procurement, operation and maintenance at stations across Africa. He began by talking to the assembled delegates about just some of the issues that they might consider when looking to set up business there; his comments were particularly targeted towards ground service providers (GSPs), but they were of general relevance to anyone looking to become more active in the continent’s aviation business.

There is no doubt that the industry is on the up across most parts of Africa, he noted. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is predicting approximately 5-6% annual growth in coming years in terms of passenger numbers across the continent as a whole.

The expansion in flight operations and the wider industry is attracting new entrants to the business in Africa, whether they be airlines or ground handlers. For handlers looking to move into the continent for the first time, or contemplating the addition of a new station to their existing Africa network, there are a number of points that Drever would consider it essential to mull over before committing to the move:

  • First, consider how stable that country is, and how stable the wider region around that nation might be. Both politically and economically, those are important things to think about
  • Take into account the airport location. Is it in a growing market with increasing traffic flows that will be good for business, for example? Can staff be sourced from the local area?
  • Consider employing, as a consultant, a local subject matter expert who knows the area and has the right contacts. Menzies has found this a very profitable approach, Drever confirmed
  • Be sure to obtain all the requisite permits and passes to operate
  • Assess whether the airport has the appropriate infrastructure and systems for successful operations
  • Consider whether operating at that gateway in that particular market fits into the company’s business model and strategy
  • And, finally, undertake rigorous due diligence before committing to an operation at a new airport

With regard to operating GSE at Africa airports, Drever pointed out that the continent has frequently been used as something of a dumping ground for some handlers’ older equipment. But, any GSP needs to ensure that its equipment will be fit for purpose in all regions at all stations. What is more, some African airport authorities are now stipulating that any GSP operating at their gateway must have equipment no older than a certain age; South Africa is a case in point.

Other GSE-related matters that must be borne in mind include repair and maintenance provision, Drever continued. A new entrant to the market should ensure that effective maintenance facilities and expertise are to hand, both for reactive and preventative maintenance.

Given that in Africa the biggest ongoing cost for a GSP is likely to be equipment (in Europe, it will be staff), it is vital that any GSE acquired by a handling start-up in Africa is right for the prevailing climatic environment and operational conditions.

Some of the infrastructure and resources available in markets such as Asia, Europe and North America are not readily available in Africa, and this has to be taken into account. For example, the latest engines equipping GSE in Europe and North America minimise harmful emissions, but will the appropriate fuels be available at an African station?

If the GSP is intending to use electric GSE, will the necessary charging infrastructure be available? Power cuts are not a rare event in many parts of Africa, so that should also be a consideration. Wi-Fi is the exception rather than the rule in many locations; this might affect the value of telematics or use of smartphone-accessed apps and so on.

Drever urged any new GSE-using entrant to the African market to bear in mind that they must select equipment suitable for the types of aircraft they will be handling; these might not be the types more usually found in Western Europe, the Americas or Asia.

Be careful about likely high shipping costs if intending to transport GSE into (or out of) Africa, as well as likely high import charges, he warned.

As in all markets, Drever suggested using a few select, preferred GSE providers in order to minimise training and maintenance costs. Also important is access to a high-quality after-sales service to meet any needs subsequent to launching operations for the first time at an African gateway; these should support effective training programmes for not only ramp handling employees but also engineers, mechanics and the like, Drever advised.

Bringing handlers together

Eric Strandgren is the managing director and a partner in ground.net, an alliance of handlers that brings together their strengths so as to offer a way of competing with the big global handlers. It gives each of the five GSP members of ground.net – Aviator, Airline Assistance Switzerland (AAS), Goldair Handling, GH Italia and AeroGround – some of the benefits enjoyed by their multinational, multi-station peers.

Formed in 2013 with three handlers, it now has a footprint at more than 70 airports throughout Europe through those five GSPs, and its coverage is growing. It also has an associate member in Oman Ground Handling, Oman’s biggest handler (of which more later).

ground.net has big plans to expand its reach into new markets not only in Europe, but also in Asia and Africa, Strandgren informed. It is particularly looking to attract local and regional handlers who want to gain the benefits of being part of a wider collaboration.

So, what are those benefits? They fit into four main areas, Strandgren explained. First, to give smaller GSPs a multi-station influence, allowing them to reach out beyond their local markets.

Second, members of ground.net gain greater international recognition, thereby strengthening the handlers’ otherwise more locally known brand.

Third, they each gain greater purchasing power and, fourth – and possibly most importantly – each member shares their experiences with the others, keeping partners abreast of best practices and of pitfalls to avoid.

As part of that last consideration, the handlers also share their latest innovations and, as a combined entity, can act as a consultant to customers to offer advice based on the combined expertise of all five members. Thus, for example, ground.net advised Oman Ground Handling in a wide-ranging, extended programme of consultancy to improve its operational performance. As a result of that, the Middle Eastern business was granted associated membership as a possible stepping stone to full membership.

ground.net has also driven innovation amongst the group. It has led small changes that offer potentially big rewards, Strandgren observed. He highlighted three developments that have benefited the group.

The first relates to what Strandgren describes as ‘hyper flexible’ staffing. Hyper flexible staff are those who will work a very short shift at an airport, perhaps of about two hours. Such workers are very valuable for handlers looking to meet the needs of the peak operating periods that are a feature of many busy gateways.

A database contains the names and contact details of such potential workers, as well as relevant details of their qualifications and skills. The database can be interrogated and suitable individuals identified and then contacted, usually via a text to their smart phone, as and when extra staff are required.

Typically, students might be amongst those who make suitable hyper flexible workers; they may only stay at a given airport to work for two hours but, perhaps more commonly, they will work a number of two-hour shifts in different roles at the airport for different handlers.

The system does not work well for all airports and for all conditions. For example, it is impractical when an airport is located far away from a city, because it takes an individual handler a long time to get there (and back). It is also less suitable for filling skilled jobs, but it does work well in many other situations.

There are about 400 names on the database at Zurich, for instance, the city where Strandgren is based, and AAS is not the only handler that uses the system there. But Strandgren estimates that AAS has reduced its staff costs significantly through hyper flexible staffing.

A second ground.net resource available to its members is called Grand Cloud. This uses constantly updated data from a handler’s own systems to improve resource planning. Data is collected and available in real-time, accessible by all relevant personnel on the cloud via an app. It can be used for operational matters such as aircraft turnarounds, and requires no expensive hardware or software.

Similarly, the third innovation available to ground.net handlers is another app. This one, called Beekeeper, fosters effective staff communication between managers and staff.

Anyone in the business can use it to report incidents or send messages of interest to anyone else in the company, enabling faster decision-making and greater corporate cohesion.

Opportunity or threat?

David Burgess is the vice president responsible for global fleet management at one of those globally active ground service providers that Strandgren mentioned: Swissport. His presentation took a look into the future – specifically, at the ramp of the future.

Burgess provided a thought-provoking assessment of the potential impact of many developments, not least the greater sophistication of technology being introduced to GSE on ramp operations.

Of course, the speed of change will vary from one market to the next, Burgess was quick to point out. Whatever is meant by ‘the future’, whether it be 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now, the ramp in one part of the world may look very different to that in another area.

The ramp has not really changed much over the last 30 or 40 years, he noted; there may be many more aircraft and much more GSE on congested ramps, but actually the equipment fulfils the same role as it did three or four decades ago, and looks pretty similar too.

So why might things be different in the future? Innovation and especially digitisation are key driving factors, Burgess considers. We have already seen a great deal of change in ‘front-of-house’ operations in the aviation industry, ranging from electronic passenger ticketing to electronic check-in and biometric security, and these sorts of developments will come to ‘back-of-house’ ramp operations, he says.

Some of the big changes on the ramp might be in areas such as:

  • GSE power/fuel/emissions: the green agenda, driven by national legislative requirements and airport regulations as well as public demand, is already impacting GSE and will continue to do so, Burgess opined. Electric GSE is becoming ever more prevalent, with lithium-ion batteries perhaps replacing lead acid batteries in the short term as a preferred power source, before other options including biofuels, hydrogen fuel and hydrogen single cell technologies might come to the fore
  • Aircraft avoidance technology: this, too, is becoming much more prevalent on airport ramps around the world. Proximity detectors and collision avoidance systems are now starting to be mandated by IATA, and Swissport is one handler that is acting ahead of the curve to fit such technology to large swathes of its GSE fleet, Burgess reported
  • Remote-control options: remote-control systems are also becoming more common on airport aprons. For example, Mototok’s small remote-controlled tugs are making an impression, and Swissport is currently trialling them at three of its stations
  • Autonomous GSE: Autonomous GSE can now be found on the ramp, Examples include the TLD and easyMile collaboration on the TractEasy driverless baggage tractor, as well as JBT’s autonomously docking Ranger loader. Another is Mallaghan’s boarding steps that autonomously approach and dock with an aircraft, a development that has benefited from the involvement of easyJet and Swissport

It is vital that GSPs such as Swissport encourage GSE suppliers to develop and distribute the sort of GSE that benefits from these types of technological improvements, Burgess said – the handlers need to make their needs very clear to the manufacturers.

Similarly, it is critically important that airports design new piers and new stands to make best use of such GSE, he continued. And new gates (as well as entirely new airports built from the ground up) must provide the infrastructure and systems to support a less congested airport (with fuel, water, power, etc, all being supplied via underground pipelines rather than vehicles clogging up the ramp, for example).

The ramp of the future will also be ‘the connected ramp’: namely one in which all data relating to GSE, perhaps through sophisticated telematics systems, is integrated with handlers’ operational and maintenance systems, as well as with airport systems.

Much of what is described above might be regarded as a possible threat to the scale of operations that might be handled by GSPs in the future, perhaps even as an existential threat to handlers in their entirety. Not so, Burgess considers: ground handling will change, and so will the handlers along with the business.

Refurbishing GSE

Danny Vranckx is the CEO of AVIACO GSE, which offers refurbished GSE (as well as new equipment) to equipment operators. Refurbishing fulfils an important niche role in the industry, he remarked, and certainly AVIACO GSE’s success would support that argument. It already supplies GSE into more than 90 countries across five continents.

With more than 35 customers in Africa alone, it has plenty of experience of the continent. In fact, Africa is one of AVIACO GSE’s most important markets, and the company has a facility in South Africa to support its business across the continent (as well as branches in the Netherlands, Spain and its headquarters in Belgium).

AVIACO has a team of approximately 20 engineers who each specialise in a particular area but who can all undertake refurbishment across a wide range of GSE types and models. They are also available to support customers wherever they might be, whether remotely or in person where necessary.

Looking to the conference discussions earlier on the Tuesday morning about technological innovations in GSE equipment, Vranckx observed that, as yet, few of the enquiries he receives relate to electric units, but he sees plenty of demand for retrofitting capabilities such as collision avoidance systems to existing GSE as part of a refurbishment process.

Smart telematics

Next up to the podium was Paul Holmes, managing director of Smart Asset Manager (SAM), a provider of telematics technology to the aviation (and other) industries. He explained what telematics actually is, how it works, and what benefits it can provide.

In terms of SAM’s own background, he recalled that it has not been involved in the airport sector for long but, when it chose to enter this market, it wanted to do so with a bespoke solution, not with a commercial-off-the-shelf product developed for the road that would not be entirely relevant for the very different airport environment.

Telematic systems can be seen as offering three levels of value, Holmes suggested. The first level, the basic building blocks of a telematic system, certainly provides significant benefits in terms of GSE tracking capability and status reporting. Noticeable cost savings can be achieved by an operator with just this level of sophistication, which cuts down on inefficiency of use, allows redundant vehicle capacity to be removed from the fleet, avoids parking and speeding fines, and reduces maintenance and repair costs.

But it is possible to go further. ‘Optimisation’ of the technology takes in analysis of such data as driver behaviour to improve performance, the use of alerting systems to warn of impending trouble and advanced reporting. Data mining can lead to more proactive resource management.

Finally, the third level, that of ‘leveraging’ the telematics technology, sees the data integrated within an operator’s complete digital landscape. It involves exploiting the benefits of artificial intelligence and extends to automation of scheduling and resource management.

Holmes went on to offer some recommendations for those GSE operators considering introducing telematics to their fleets. He advised:

  • Make it clear what is required from telematics; it is more difficult and expensive to add functions later
  • Clarify both long-term requirements and short-term needs
  • Ensure the selected system and functions align with the existing IT environment and future strategy in this area
  • Understand the airports and their specific operating conditions where the telematics system will be employed
  • There is a trade-off between network bandwidth, cost and functionality. Each business must find the right point in that trade-off for its ongoing requirements

The data produced by telematics is critical, Holmes argued. It will unlock new levels of maturity for a business, he commented. But customers must ‘do their homework’ before settling on a telematics system and be clear what is required from it.

Leveraging technology to improve safety

The next three industry players to take the stage addressed the subject of making the best use of technology to ensure all airside operations are as safe as they can be.

The first speaker on this topic was Marja Aalto, director of air transportation development at Tampere Airport. Tampere is the second-largest urban area in Finland (after the Helsinki capital region) and thus the airport there is already an important transport hub. Moreover, it is estimated that the region’s population will grow strongly in coming years – by as much as 40% by 2030.

From a gateway’s point of view, Aalto noted that airside safety may be most important but it must also be reconciled with the needs of operational efficiency and quick aircraft turnarounds.

The most important factors in ensuring airside safety are awareness and communication, she continued. Effective communication based on awareness of what is going on at all times – best achieved through an advanced airport collaborative decision-making, or ACDM, system – is fundamentally important. Digitisation is facilitating and speeding up processes in these areas, but the challenges to airside safety are significant – not least when operating at an airport like Tampere that faces –40°C temperatures, snow and ice in a Finnish winter that would challenge any operation.

Technology of course offers excellent tools to help, not only in terms of ACDM but all the various hi-tech products of modern airport systems, from advanced visual docking guidance systems on the gates to collision avoidance systems on GSE.

Operating to agreed, safe standards, such as those contained in IATA’s Ground Operations Manual (IGOM), also provides a helpful environment. But no matter the quantity and quality of the technology in place, Aalto said, at the end of the day safety is always going to be about people. Hence the importance of training and communication in an atmosphere of trust, often described as a ‘just culture’ where apportioning blame is not the knee-jerk reaction when things go wrong.

IATA standards

In part building on what Aalto had said about the importance of adhering to internationally agreed standards to ensure safety of operations on the ramp, Dimitrios Sanos, product manager airport & ground operations training at IATA, talked a little about how the trade association is using technology in its own way to keep the industry on track when it comes to safety and efficiency.

Sanos noted that the aviation industry continues to grow strongly, and is forecast to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  That’s good news for the industry and for those in it, but it also means that – for many operating on the ramp – they may well have to do more with (probably) the same resources that they have now.

Like Aalto, Sanos emphasised that a lot of the accidents that come about on the ramp are caused by the stresses of turning around aircraft quickly in very tight time slots, ie, where safety requirements clash with challenging operational requirements. But technology is helping both on the ramp and in training for those operating airside. For example, he pointed to IATA’s RampVR product, which makes use of virtual reality headsets to train ramp operators.

Training aids need not be hi-tech. Christoph Fladung, a sales and marketing manager at AtlasAvia, is also responsible for the company’s Mock Up Trainer. This is a training aid for operators of GSE such as belt loaders, high loaders and catering trucks. Functioning as a stand-alone unit or mounted on a trailer or truck, the frame can be used to imitate different aircraft to which GSE must be docked at different heights.

The training device can be deployed to a company’s place of business to enable employees to practise in their local environment.

Sanitisation

Returning to IATA and its role in training ground handlers in their responsibilities vis-à-vis safety on the ramp, Basil Agboarumi, managing director and CEO of Lagos, Nigeria-based Skyway Aviation Handling Co (SAHCO), talked about the importance of IATA’s Safety Audit for Ground Operation, or ISAGO.

A GSP has to ensure complete safety in its ramp operations, he noted, whether in Africa or anywhere else.

Of course, there is no separate African aviation industry: it is all one global business.

But perhaps more than anywhere else, Africa – or certainly parts of it – has benefited dramatically from the opportunities that ISAGO offers, Agboarumi believes.

Without ISAGO certification, GSPs commonly have to undertake numerous audits in order to prove to their various airline customers that they are a safe pair of hands when it comes to handling their aircraft. With ISAGO certification under their belt, this becomes unnecessary.

Moreover, many of those carriers who go through the ISAGO process see the number of unwanted incidents and accidents on their ramps diminish significantly as a result, thus improving safety and reducing the costs associated with such incidents. In this case, “A cheaper operation is also a safer operation”, Agboarumi pointed out.

In many cases, ISAGO-certified handlers also benefit from multi-station standardisation in their offering, something that carrier customers are always keen to see.

Good African handlers enjoying ISAGO certification are on a par with GSPs operating anywhere else around the world as a result of bringing their procedures and systems into line with ISAGO standards, Agboarumi argued.

ISAGO has ‘sanitised’ the ramp handling business of the aviation industry in many locations, he suggested. SAHCO itself has driven the implementation of best practices airside and ISAGO has been fundamental to this process, Agboarumi added.

Corporate culture

For Link Aero Trading Agency’s CEO, Amr Samir, having the right corporate culture is key to ensuring safe – as well as efficient – operations. Since its establishment in 1992, Link Aero has handled close to 20 million passengers and over 150,000 flights for more than 140 clients, including scheduled, charter, government, military, private and cargo operators.

The ground handling business is much more than just that found – and most commonly discussed – in locations such as the Americas, Western Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. For many African handlers, the latest hi-tech equipment may well be beyond their budget,

but all companies can operate to a high standard of corporate culture. And human factors are crucial in the aviation business, especially in regards to ramp operations, Samir declared. Moreover, safety is at the very heart of service provision in the industry, he added.

Good training is vital to a positive company culture and to safe operations, as is exposure to the various ways of doing business across the world. But training can achieve only so much, Samir suggested. Even more important is an individual’s attitude – and that is what Samir assesses when he first considers employing a new staff member.

“The right attitude” is the most important thing in his employee selection process, he said.

ISAGO, part 2

Hervé Gueusquin, managing partner at Paris-headquartered Air Business Consultants (ABC), took up the reins next to give his view on ISAGO and what is new in regard to the IATA standard, especially in relation to the African market.

He pointed out that there are thousands of ethnic groups in Africa and thousands of languages spoken, with some nations heavily populated and others very sparsely populated. The natural resources available vary considerably too and, as far as key aviation gateways are concerned, they are to be found in the countries that ring the continent rather than towards the centre.

Africa has a massive potential aviation market, although high levels of national taxation continue to put a brake on Africans flying across and out of their continent.

As for the nature of typical ramp operations across Africa, while in some places they look similar to those found at a European or North American gateway, in others they more resemble a ramp of a developed country of 75 years ago.

Implementing ISAGO procedures at some of the less-developed air gateways would make a huge difference to operations at these airports, Gueusquin observed, not least in terms of safety.

Ticking the right boxes

The final presentation of GSE & RAMP-OPS AFRICA 2019 came from RTITB, a UK-based company offering training standards, quality assurance and skills certification, on the subject of pre-use inspection of GSE and its role in maintaining high safety standards on the ramp.

RTITB’s Alex Samson began his presentation talking about the importance of careful maintenance of GSE such that it remains in good working order. Then, pre-use checks by operators ensure that the GSE remains in good condition and does not endanger the safety of the operator or others on the ramp.

Samson noted that care and inspections require some investment in terms of time, but they are well worth it. While most examples of ramp rash might be attributable to human error, there are plenty that come down to faulty and poorly maintained equipment, and the resultant cost can be high – to people, to GSE and/or to aircraft if there is an unwanted collision.

Pre-use inspection can be simple, and it need not take too much time. RTITB has designed operator checklists for various types of GSE. Picking up a problem early on when it is not a major issue can not only prevent an accident happening, it can also avert the need for more serious repair and maintenance later.

Spelling out the benefits of careful and effective pre-use checks, Samson pointed to:

  • Preventing potentially dangerous equipment being used
  • Maintaining the value of the equipment
  • Extending the longevity of the equipment
  • Allowing the identification of ongoing problems with equipment
  • Improving the corporate brand – well-maintained equipment is good for the image of the handler
  • Minimising the danger of foreign object debris (FOD) caused by components falling off GSE
  • Reducing the risk of aircraft damage, as well as GSE damage
  • Protecting the safety of operators, aircrews and passengers

Any pre-use GSE inspection should be carefully done but need not be a lengthy process. If the need for repairs is apparent, that should usually not be the role of the operator but a fully trained mechanic or engineer. And all inspections should be recorded, whether a problem is found or not.