A lot of the focus of this blog is the equipment used to make airport ground operations possible, as well infrastructure items like hangars and hangar doors. But what of the infrastructure which makes the operation actually move? Airport Ground Handling Services are the prime movers who supply the manpower to actually conduct day-to-day business.
What are Airport Ground Handling Services for?
Airport ground handling services are the nuts and bolts of the airport industry. What does that mean exactly? These are the service organizations which take a variety of different specialized tasks and congeal them into an interdisciplinary organization which conducts these tasks in a synchronous manner.
This represents a very broad overview of airport ground handling and the respective service providers. Not all ground handling service providers are in the same market niche. We can break these down into a few more succinct categories:
- Service providers
- Equipment providers (sales)
- Logisticians and planners
- Fuel supply
Ground handling service providers
Ground handling service providers are the organizations which provide direct support to the apron. They are the contractors which bring together the expertise and materials necessary to conduct airport ground operations.
What exactly are the ground handling services? Refueling aircraft, towing aircraft, marshalling and parking, luggage handling, and so on. Some service providers also provide line maintenance services, which entail system servicing and line maintenance items like tire and brake changes, window changes, and other routine aircraft maintenance.
Equipment Providers and Sales
These are the ground handling service providers which either produce or retail the equipment used to make airports go. A common misconception is that the only equipment to fall under airport ground service and handling is the physical equipment and machinery used on the apron, but that is not a comprehensive snapshot of the airport operation at large.
Airports are subject to the same cultural and technological shifts as the rest of the market, and as they should. Aviation is an industry stricken by a curious dichotomy; on the one hand, it represents incredible technological advancements, yet on the other hand it is stodgily reliant on outdated technology. Much of the failure to follow through on employing modern technology is largely due to bureaucratic red tape on the air side of the industry.
The ground side of operations is being transformed into a cutting edge industry using the latest technology in robotics to advance airside ground operations. Inside the terminal, ground handling services have become increasingly autonomous and are much bigger control of ticketing processes. Even more significant are powerful software suites which handle cargo lading end-to-end. These provide a tremendous advantage in terms of safety; much like the advent of Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs) are systematically doing away with human error, automated cargo management solutions carefully create an exact weight-and-balance ledger for each aircraft, assuring that the critical center of gravity (CG) is calculated precisely within limits.
More traditional sales include everything under the sun, from de-icing vehicles to maintenance stands, to engine test cells.
Logisticians and Planners
The LEAN concept has been around for quite awhile now and has developed an almost cult-like following in manufacturing and production. In a nutshell, LEAN cleans up processes by removing extraneous movement, waste, and by consolidating processes.
What logistics and planning ground handling services provide is intelligence. They allow airport planners and air carriers to war game exactly what measures they need to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and also plan routes, forecast economic activity, and determine both capacity and revenue.
Aircraft fuel suppliers cover a lot more territory than simply trucking out gas and putting it on the airplane. Fuel is the lifeblood of aviation and the operation is a complex one which involves cryogenic storage, bulk fuel storage, fuel testing and sampling, and of course, aircraft refueling.
The two areas may be a single source supplier of aircraft servicing and fuel tank farm support, or you may need to hire on multiple contracts to ensure you have all necessary bases covered for fuel. Your entire airport operation depends on fuel so pay very close attention to this; it will make or break you.
In a Post-9/11 world, airport security is a very different animal. Some of you will probably recall general aviation before 9/11. Small, sleepy airports did not even have a fence around them; automobiles could drive right off the street and onto runways and taxiways. Today? Unthinkable. The entire airport is surrounded by tall security fences and cypher gates. It is a very different world.
All western nations have adopted much more stringent security standards and physical security requirements, and this is really tied with fuel support for the most important ground service at an airport, and directly impacts fuel services for that matter.
This ground handling service no longer simply means physical security (guards, airport police, fences and barricades). Now it entails cybersecurity, safeguarding the operation from intrusion and interruption. Cyber security not only involves securing data, but it also involves penetration testing to ensure that cyber attacks are properly thwarted.
This area, probably more than any other, will require a multi-faceted approach and will require the airport operator to parcel out different portions of the entire security program out to agencies that specialize in particular areas. The contractor who provides excellent guards may not even offer cyber security, and vice versa. Security is far too important to accept mediocrity and cut corners.
It is too easy to get carried away with the hard skills and technical aspect of running an airport. While this is terribly important, the soft skills cannot be understated. These are the hooks that bring people back. Hiring a quality concierge service to provide representation for the airport and the local community is important, an airport service which provides positive public relations between airport customers and the surrounding community.
Airports represent the melding of cultures, the interlocking global community, particularly international airports. In many cases, it is the sole experience that a traveller takes away from an entire community, sometime even an entire country. Hiring the right concierge is linked with all other levels of airport ground handling services because if passengers avoid the airport from poor service, the remainder of services are of little importance.
Fixed Base Operator (FBO)
The FBO is the backbone of general aviation. What exactly an FBO consists of varies widely but it usually is made up of fuel support, maintenance services, parking and mooring, flight training, aircraft rental, and so on. It is the one-stop-shop for all things flying.
It is important to understand some key distinctions about FBOs versus other ground support companies and service providers. FBOs almost always employ an aircraft mechanic, but this is not to say that they have the capability of a maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) facility, or of a specialty shop. FBO maintenance could be looked at as dual-purpose: first, they provide general maintenance support like oil changes, periodic and isochronal inspections of light aircraft, and general servicing; second, it is a sort of triage for transient aircraft. If your aircraft loses brakes, springs and oil leak, or has the alternator go out, the FBO mechanic is on hand to help get back in the air.
FBOs rarely have a fuel farm at their disposal. Some airports have below-ground or small above-ground tanks, and some airports of even smaller scope keep their entire fuel supply on the trucks. Their fuel services are geared toward the light aircraft on station and light transient traffic.
Airport design consultancies are a truly unsung hero of the ground services industry. Unless you work in airports, you probably have never even heard of the companies yet they are the consultants who ensure that when the wheels on your jet touch down, your jet will safely decelerate without incident.
Airport designers must understand the unique needs of airport pavements and structures. Airport pavements have different qualities than roadway pavement. They must be extremely strong pavements, yet elastic. The pavement must be rated for specific aircraft weights based upon landing gear configuration, etc. Trying to save a few dollars by hiring a design firm unfamiliar with airport-specific requirements will end up costing far more in the long run.
Conclusion to airport ground handling services and companies
It would take far too long to offer a completely comprehensive listing of all airport ground handling services and companies because there are so many different niches of the airport as a whole. Airports are such a unique entity because they require so many different systems and services to be in harmonious operation to provide the level of service that passengers have come to expect. You know that the operation is functioning efficiently when the passengers barely even notice it is there.
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