Handlers have been hit hard by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps as hard as any link in the chain of the aviation industry. Yet, ground service providers (GSPs) such as dnata have been at the forefront of the effort to ensure that the industry continues to function as best it can, with passengers able to feel confident that flying is still as safe as possible
dnata, part of the Dubai-headquartered Emirates Group, moved quickly and decisively when the potential impact of Covid-19 was first assessed in early spring this year. According to the handler, its teams worked “around the clock to develop and implement a comprehensive health and safety programme” that involved adapting services, processes and training across its international operations.
Specifically in relation to its ground handling, dnata introduced new disinfection programmes, deployed personal protective equipment (PPE) widely amongst its staff, mandated protective measures such as social distancing, and significantly enhanced its aircraft interior cleaning services.
In May, dnata undertook a mass disinfection programme of all its GSE at its two home hubs in Dubai as part of a wider effort to protect its own employees and passengers. More than 11,500 pieces of GSE – including buses, passenger steps, baggage dollies and pushback tractors – were disinfected at the two Dubai airports where dnata is active: Dubai International and Dubai World Central.
A bowser spray unit and handheld sanitation units were used to disinfect all of dnata’s airside GSE, including its cargo handling equipment.
dnata president Gary Chapman summarises: “The Covid-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to the travel and aviation industries. dnata is not immune. Like our customers and competitors, we are also facing serious challenges and working hard to recalibrate our business and operations for what, right now, is an uncertain future.
“Over the past few months, we have adapted our operations and processes to the new normal, enhanced our existing services, and launched new ones to meet changing demand.”
A range of measures
Dirk Goovaerts is dnata’s regional CEO for the Asia-Pacific region and as such has played a leading role in introducing dnata’s Covid-19 countermeasures in that area. He explains that as soon as the danger of the virus spreading from Wuhan in China had been identified, dnata quickly introduced those aspects of its Business Continuity Plan that were relevant to this specific situation.
Those measures were wide-ranging. As described above, more stringent cabin cleaning measures were introduced, alongside the use of stronger antiviral disinfectant, in order to protect passengers.
All dnata agents and handlers even remotely likely to come into contact with the virus were offered PPE, the perceived danger of their operating environment determining the level of PPE required. Masks and hand sanitisers were widely issued, with equipment such as visors given to those in greater danger: for example, staff who are required to work alongside others in the confined space of an aircraft cargo hold for even short periods during the freight loading/unloading process).
As well as new equipment, new procedures were put in place to minimise the danger to dnata’s employees. Social distancing measures, whether mandated or advised by relevant national, local or airport authorities were instituted, and management ensured that these rules were both understood and observed by staff, says Goovaerts.
dnata has also deployed its teams into self-contained, smaller silos wherever possible in order to ensure that the virus does not spread amongst them. This has built resilience.
The GSP has brought in new rules to minimise contact between its handlers (and other employees) and non-dnata, third-party individuals in order to further reduce the danger of infection to its staff. Furthermore, in addition to the social distancing that applies wherever possible to its employees during their shifts, dnata has also minimised the time they spend working together wherever feasible.
Training of staff has been key to ensuring that the new requirements and guidelines are followed, Goovaerts stresses, adding: “Discipline amongst our agents has been so important.” Cross-training of staff in other areas of dnata’s work has also taken place to increase flexibility in resource deployment – for example, some of dnata’s workers who usually handle passenger flights have been redeployed to handling cargo services, whose operational frequency has remained as high as usual during the pandemic.
A price worth paying
Goovaerts admits that the new PPE and disinfectant cost money, the new measures introduced have some cost implications, and they may have some negative effect on productivity but, he says: “We had to make these investments, no expense could be spared to protect the health and safety of our employees or of our customers.”
He continues: “It would have been a false economy to do otherwise. There was the threat of losing control, as well as the danger to health. It was absolutely necessary to act as we did.”
As to when dnata and other handlers might be able to begin withdrawing these various precautionary measures, Goovaerts opines: “There can be no definitive answer on this at the moment.
“Personally, I believe that until a vaccine is widely available we will need to keep these precautions in place,” and that dnata will continue to work with airport operator partners, government and other national regulatory bodies, as well as keeping a good eye on the advice of multinational health agencies such as the World Health Organization to maintain the necessary countermeasures.
Goovaerts believes that dnata has played a key role in keeping aircraft flying during this incredibly hard time for the industry, an especially important function in terms of those cargo-carrying aircraft flying medicines and PPE to where it was most needed. It has also worked as hard as possible to keep confidence that dnata and the operations it handles are as biosafe as possible – in other words that dnata, as a GSP, has taken all possible measures to protect the health and safety not only of its own staff but also those of its customers and customers’ customers.
Looking forward, Goovaerts believes that handlers will need to look seriously at reinventing their businesses to meet the needs of a new operating environment – the ‘new normal’ as it relates to the aviation industry.
“We need to adapt our existing services and introduce new services” in order to operate successfully in the new normal, he considers. This is, of course, “easier said than done”, but dnata at least is committed to being sufficiently agile to meet the needs of the changed operating milieu and to enhance the overall customer experience.
Senior management and ramp operators alike will need something of a new mindset, the former especially having to be able to make the right decisions in a fast-moving environment.
New procedures and new equipment will also be part of the answer, as will making optimum use of new technology to automate procedures and optimise resource allocation, Goovaerts concludes.