David Henderson is the chief commercial officer of National Aviation Services (NAS), the Kuwait-headquartered aviation service provider. He tells Airside International about the rapid programme of expansion and development on which the handler is continuing to progress
In April this year it was announced that NAS’s Abidjan station had been certified as compliant with the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s Safety Audit for Ground Operations (better known as ISAGO).
NAS’s operation in its home hub of Kuwait was so certified as far back as 2008, and the company’s growing network of stations have each worked hard to achieve ISAGO status as each in turn joined the service provider’s expanding footprint.
NAS employs more than 8,000 people and is now present – either as a ground handler or as a lounge provider – at 30 stations: only the most recently added operation at Tanzania is not yet ISAGO-certified. That is not likely to remain the case for long, confirms NAS chief commercial officer David Henderson. The company is already looking to gain the distinction at its Tanzania station within the next 12 months or so.
Abidjan was the third NAS operation to be certified as ISAGO-compliant in just the past year. It’s a vital element of the NAS strategy. “ISAGO is core to everything that we do in terms of quality and processes,” Henderson explains. “It provides a backbone to our operations.”
Having ISAGO certification right across the NAS network is reflective of the consistency in its product, no matter what the nature and challenges of the individual station. And it is this consistency of quality of service “that our customers like”, Henderson says. You don’t get the degree of station-to-station variance in service offering that was seen perhaps a decade or more ago, he suggests.
NAS sees itself as the “go-to people” for those looking for an aviation service provider in an emerging market. And the corporate strategy is for more of the same in coming years. “We have handling and lounge products that we believe are in strong demand,” Henderson informs, and the company’s recent rapid expansion certainly suggests that to be the case.
NAS is active across three regions – South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Henderson believes that there is plenty of potential for further growth in these areas’ emerging markets. In Africa, for example, there has not been the level of consolidation in service provision amongst multinational players that has been seen on other continents, but that is now coming. Meanwhile, there is also likely to be plenty of growth in the African aviation market itself, just as there has been in the Gulf.
Meanwhile, there is a much greater awareness and desire amongst state players in Africa and in the Middle East to bring in talent and expertise from abroad, Henderson notes. The days of vertically integrated state actors such as national, state-owned flag-carrier and state-owned handlers working together on-airport are dwindling, he considers. Governments and ministries of aviation or transport across these regions are now much more likely to look to external, multinational players to bring in talent and expertise.
NAS is well placed in this regard. As noted above, key to its offering is the quality and consistency of service level across all its stations. “Customers want the same product from us wherever we operate,” Henderson observes. “That’s a big challenge, but we provide it.
“The aviation market in [NAS’s home region of] the Middle East is regarded as the benchmark for customer service and quality,” he continues. “We have built that sort of product and are introducing it into other regions. That is what our customers want and that is what they get. It’s been a big part of our success, and ISAGO certification across the network reflects this.”
Such a process requires a lot of investment in new stations. An entirely new fleet of equipment and IT infrastructure was required to upgrade the Abidjan station, for instance. Elsewhere: “One of the toughest things we’re looking at right now is getting COBUS buses into Kabul, for example.”
Because of their perceived quality, “We use COBUS, that’s what we do. So the challenge is to get the buses into Kabul, and we will achieve it.”
The buses may have to be flown in. NAS has already organised two major AN-124 airlifts into Kabul to bring in equipment – it may need more. It was a lot simpler to ship COBUS vehicles into Abidjan, where the city’s port provided a much easier means of access into the Ivory Coast and its west coast aviation hub.
As well as COBUS, NAS works with many other well-known names in the GSE manufacturing field. It’s all about having the right partners, Henderson says, mentioning well-known players like TREPEL and Mallaghan. “We have the right partners, and they work hard for us,” he informs.
“It’s tough for them as well as us” to operate in some of NAS’s extremely challenging operational environments, he points out. Heat and humidity levels vary widely, for example, across the locations at which the handler’s GSE is required to operate. “But we all work together to ensure that their products work well for us, so that we work well for our customers.”
The levels of trust built between NAS and its various partners have created a high-quality, reliable supply chain, Henderson believes. And as well as on the hardware side of the business, it’s been the same on the software side, he adds.
Of course, the different challenges faced by a ground handler in Kabul or Abidjan as opposed to Kuwait City means that different levels of cost are incurred. But, says Henderson, that is a fact that is generally recognised and understood by NAS customers, as demonstrated by their acceptance of varying ground handling rates.
Customer expectations are also changing over the years, Henderson says. First, airlines and airports have fully woken up to the important contribution ground handling makes to the nature and quality of the service offered to their customers. Moreover, he notes: “As more and more of our customers segment their products, more and more is required of the handler.”
That increased segmentation can be seen in the large number of value-added quality services offered by carriers to their customers via their handlers, in terms of varied booking options and so much more. “Thus we offer an increasing range of services to customers on behalf of airlines, and even on behalf of airports.”
This means diversification into new revenue streams for NAS, which is no bad thing. But it also has consequences for the way that NAS organises itself and operates. The increasing levels of product segmentation, product sophistication and commercialisation all have an impact on training, employee selection and team structures, for instance. This process will continue to affect a handler such as NAS in the future, Henderson predicts.