GSE Training

posted on 22nd June 2018

Jack Evans, the CEO of Total Airport Services (TAS), tells an anecdote to illustrate the dangers of weak GSE training programmes. Although his company has an enviable safety record, no business is foolproof.

“We had a problem in Chicago when an individual jumped onto a big pushback tractor, which he had never driven before and had no authorisation for. He tried to drive it figuring that he had a driving licence and this vehicle had four wheels so what could go wrong?” said Evans.

What the young man did not realise was that, unlike a normal car, the US$500,000 pushback tractor had four steerable wheels. Tuition was required to handle its idiosyncrasies. “He drove it straight into a van and totalled the van,” said Evans. “Luckily, he didn’t get near a plane. Obviously, we forbid untrained people to drive vehicles airside, but he later said he was trying to show ‘initiative’. Without proper training methods, this kind of thing would happen a lot more often,” said Evans.

Bob Newman, the SVP of Network Safety and Risk Management at Menzies Aviation, agrees with Evans that training is the lynchpin of a ground handler’s business. “Training is the foundation we build on from the moment they walk in the door. Someone once asked me if there was a formula to assess the consequences of reducing training programmes. I said: ‘Yes, just sit on your hands and watch your safety record deteriorate. Undoubtedly, it will’,” he said.

Evans’ approach to training at TAS has been influenced profoundly by a 26-year career in the US Air Force. Evans flew more than 3,500 hours of jet time and retired as a colonel and wing commander at Robins Air Force Base, in Georgia, back in 1998.

After various jobs in the industry, he co-founded TAS as an airport services business in 2004. The business has grown rapidly from revenue of US$2.6 million in 2005 to US$30 million last year, and now operates at eight US airports. Evans puts the rapid rise down in no small part to rigorous GSE training methods.

“When I started out in civilian airlines, I thought many of them did not place as much emphasis on training as the Air Force. Anyone observing how Total Airport Services operates will see parallels with the way the Air Force works,” Evans said.

Much of what TAS does to train operatives seems like common sense. First, they learn about the various GSE tasks from manuals. They are examined on their understanding and if they achieve an 80% pass rate they can use some of the GSE equipment under close supervision. They then need to be signed off on two separate occasions by their trainer, or supervisor before they can work alone.

“Once they are signed off as proficient, we increase their wages by a dollar an hour, which is a good incentive to improve quickly,” said Evans.

Up to this point, the TAS approach to training is relatively standard. But Evans claims that what makes his company’s approach unique, or at least unusual, is their focus on systematic leadership training for proficient employees. “The belief in leadership training is also influenced by my Air Force days,” said Evans. “I have often seen civilian companies promote people to lead roles without leadership training. The companies assumed they could take a supervisory role because they were doing a good job. If they didn’t do well, they were fired and someone else moved up,” he said.

But Evans thought this approach wasteful. At the same time, he wanted to encourage determined recruits to take on the mantle of leadership. “We found that the weakest link in the community of workers was that most were not used to being leaders. We’ve often got a young group of males so there’s lots of testosterone flying around. If you can channel that energy by moulding someone into being the leader of a group, you really get something accomplished,” he said.

Once they reach the proficient stage, employees can choose to study the leadership manuals and undergo leadership training. When they are ready, they take a test. The tests to become supervisors are graded at TAS’s various locations in the US. But when it comes to the tests for managers, Evans himself takes charge. “If they get anything wrong, I explain the philosophy behind the right answers.  No one can become a GSE manager and achieve higher pay unless they pass the test and we have chatted about it,” he said.

Evans says some of his company’s competitors disdain his belief that leadership needs to be studied. “One competitor said it was ‘too touchy feely and too squishy’. He told me he didn’t want to spend money on leadership training as it wasn’t really teaching them about the job.”

Another important factor in the TAS formula is the use of a risk-assessment programme based upon ones used by companies listed on the London Stock Exchange. Evans first implemented the programme in 2001 when he was managing director of airport operations at Airport Group International.

“The effect was dramatic. Within two years, our costs went from US$1.4m in accidents, incidents and workers’ compensation for the year, right down to US$64,000 and the number of incidents dropped from 121 down to 37,” Evans said.

The LSE Risk Assessment Programme is now a fundamental part of how TAS operates and Evans teaches the classes himself. “It forces us to look at all aspects of our business, to anticipate problems and develop measures to stop them happening. For example, you could hit an aeroplane at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. We have a maitrix that defines what the liability will be to the company and the probability of it happening,” he said.

The prioritisation of risks influences GSE training methods. “We use the data from the risk assessment to focus on areas of risk when we put together training programmes. A secondary control measure is to have regular safety meetings where we emphasise, for example, the importance of safe driving. Lloyd’s of London recognised our Risk Assessment Programme, which includes our training, as one of the best in the industry,” he said.

The company’s showcase cargo aircraft ground handling operation is at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, where TAS services Air China, British Airways, Cargolux Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways, EVA Airlines, Korean Airlines, Lufthansa Cargo, Air France, and Kalitta Airways.

Last year, Korean Airlines announced that TAS Chicago was its number one in the world for safety and service for 2010. Korean Airlines Cargo had 486 flights and only four delays for the year with three being weather-related. That was a 99.2% on-time takeoff rate without an accident or incident. It was the second time TAS had won the Korean Airlines award for Chicago since it began ground handling there in 2007.

TAS grew at 36% in 2011 and plans an overseas expansion in 2012, but remains a small operator in global terms. The same cannot be said of Menzies Aviation, which is a global provider of passenger, ramp and cargo handling services. Founded in 1995, the company operates in 29 countries and has a worldwide staff of 17,000. Menzies serves over 500 airline customers handling over 800,000 flights and 1.7 million tonnes of cargo per annum.

Menzies Aviation and TAS may operate on different scales, but both companies believe that efficient GSE training underpins their operations. Menzies achieved the highest possible grade in the IATA Operational Safety Audit.

Menzies’ SVP of Network Safety and Risk Management Bob Newman believes the key to traoming is striking the right balance between class-room instruction and more practical training. “Some companies do more theory and less practical work. But we put greater emphasis on job training with a mentor,” said Newman.

Newman says the quality of the classroom instruction depends on the trainer’s ability to stimulate trainees. “We have very little computer-based training as I think that works best for refresher courses and has little value in the initial learning experience. What I think is vital is to get the trainee to ask questions and challenge what we tell them. There are some handouts, but interaction is the most important thing. The style of training is what makes it memorable. There’s a strong emphasis on people safety and aircraft safety. Later, we follow it up with a lot of refresher classroom training.”

Following the theory course, trainees who achieve an 80% pass rate can use some of the equipment under supervision.

“I think the practical part is more important for learning,” said Newman. “A lot of the guys are used to working in industrialised areas and they can find the classroom an alien environment. I also believe that what you listen to you can forget, whereas what you do, you tend to remember.”

The trainees are “buddied up” with supervisors until they are deemed capable of operating alone. At first, they are only drive the simplest piece of equipment, a baggage tug. “We have a 160-hour rule for driving on airside. All they can drive for that period is a baggage tug and only on roadways. They are not allowed on aprons, or near aeroplanes,” said Newman. “They need this orientation period so they better understand road layouts and the difference between driving airside and on public highways. Awareness is critical near aeroplanes.”

After the four-week period, employees get to drive the baggage tug around the aeroplane. “But it depends on attitude, awareness and demeanour. There is no defined time line,” said Newman.

Usually a year or two elapses before they move on to more complicated equipment, such as pushback tractors, or de-icers. “Heavy equipment requires further specialist training,” said Newman. “Just because you can drive a baggage tug doesn’t make you able to pull or push aircraft around. Only guys who have demonstrated the requisite level of experience, skill and situational awareness, are entrusted with aircraft movement equipment. There’s a lot of responsibility. A pushback tractor can cost US$500,000 and an aircraft could cost US$125 million and have 400 people on board. Our criteria for pushing and pulling aircraft is very high.”

Some employees, however, do move through the ranks quickly. “We employ a lot of heavy goods drivers and they are used to driving big trucks so they tend to adapt easily,” said Newman.

Newman believes the industry’s training methods are changing fast. Simulator machines have been around for a while, but until recently they were not always cost-effective methods of training. But that is changing.

“The manufacturers have a better understanding of GSE operations now and are developing simulators to provide more than one mode of training. Some can model about 50 different equipment types. Previously you had to buy loads of different simulators which wasn’t cost-effective,” he said.

Newman has a mandate for a successful simulator. First, they must model different machines, and second, they have to model different driving scenarios, such as mist, fog, and snow. Finally, they must be mobile. “We have to be able to pack it into a van and move it to different airports. We need to move the simulator to the people rather than the people to the simulator, which is what used to happen. We have one on trial at the moment and we’ll decide next year if it’s a good training method and cost-effective. But I do believe that’s where the industry is going.”

Another massive provider of ground services, Swissport International, has somewhat different methods of training. Swissport operates on an even bigger scale to Menzies. It provides ground services for around 100 million passengers and 3.2 million tonnes of cargo a year on behalf of 650 clients in 36 countries.

Swissport trains its 35,000-strong workforce using a blended learning approach. Unlike both Menzies and TAS, Swissport uses on-line modules, including films, and drag and drop options. On-line testing reinforces the lessons. On completion of the programme, trainees need an 80% score (ISO Standard) on tests to graduate. Then, for several months they work alongside a mentor before they can operate alone.

Loredana Quercia, head of Training & Development at Swissport, said: “Training has changed over the years. Everything now needs to be done faster with higher quality standards. We find on-line training an effective method because it can be done at the trainee’s own speed and elements can be repeated if necessary.”

Companies like TAS, Menzies and Swissport put a high value on training. But Evans, at TAS, worries that some businesses will be tempted to cut training budgets because of the prolonged economic downturn.

“Lots of our competitors have eliminated benefits for employees. They are no longer providing medical care, or dental care and other benefits. And once they get rid of those things, training is another easy one to cut back on. They might save money in the short term, but we are keeping our training programme going as, in the long-term, there will be fewer accidents and reduced insurance costs,” he said.