Certifying the Service Provider


Manuscript of the Article published in
'Airports International', November 2016

1.  Introduction

The General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) of Saudi Arabia has led the way in opening up the Middle East aviation market by implementing a strategic plan that includes privatizing airport infrastructure and ground services.

In doing so it has become the first country in its region to challenge the monopoly of the dominant state-owned ground service provider and welcome new international companies. 


GACA has now developed the world’s first integrated regulatory framework to certify ground service providers and license their personnel.  This year, Swissport was the first company certified to operate under the new rules at the international airports of Jeddah (IATA: JED), Riyadh (RUH) and Dammam (DMM).  The new regulation, GACAR Part 151, covers all core ground handling activities, which are grouped in 11 categories and 30 core functions.  Certified service providers must adhere to the IATA ground operating standards and best practice, while the Joint Inspection Group (JIG) standards constitute the reference for the into-plane fuel companies.  At the first stage of implementation, subcontracting to non-certified third parties is permitted to initially address particularities of the domestic market.  Yet, the relevant requirements are strict and demand that the subcontracted firm adheres to the quality system of the certified company and be accepted by the regulator.  The certified organization is also responsible for periodically auditing its subcontractor to the satisfaction of GACA. 

Figure 1:
Swissport was awarded ground service provider certificates at three Saudi airports in 2016; JED, RUH and DMM

2.  Certification of the GSP

An organization applying for a ground service provider certificate has to submit a number of manuals and documents to GACA for acceptance.  These detail its ground operations processes and procedures, the quality assurance system, the training program, safety management system, and the emergency response plan. In addition, a service level agreement (SLA) with the airport operator must be established to address a number of key safety and performance indexes. 

The certified organization must be also able to provide technical maintenance for its ground support equipment (GSE) and possess the required know-how, tools and facilities.  Alternatively, it can enter a contract with a maintenance organization for the periodic technical inspection and support of its GSE fleet.  Ground support equipment should always be fit for purpose in terms of its condition and serviceability, while also meeting certain age constraints. 

In one essential element of the new certification framework, the ground service provider is required to nominate three post holders for an acceptance process by the aviation authority.  The quality assurance manager and the training manager are the designated two post holders at corporate level with the ground station manager at an airport operational level.  This arrangement enhances the degree of accountability and allows the regulator to assess the qualifications, knowledge and competence of key managerial staff appointed.  The responsibilities of the post holders are outlined in the regulation with their duties further detailed in the relevant manuals submitted.

One additional key aspect of the new regulation is the introduction of fatigue management for all operational staff working on shifts, which prescribes maximum working hours and minimum rest periods between duty times.  It aims to eliminate excessive working hours by ground operations personnel, usually due to the lack of manpower. Such shortages may have significant impact on operational and flight safety leading to exhausted staff and discontinued training with subsequent inconsistency in the implementation of procedures.  Training hours cannot be considered as working hours and must not breach duty and rest requirements, according to Advisory Circular AC-151, which provides guidance and acceptable means of compliance for the certification process. 

Furthermore, AC-151 describes the contents of an acceptable emergency plan, which must be consistent with the airport’s emergency preparedness.  It also presents the industry with detailed information on the audit and inspection framework the aviation authority is expected to implement as an integral part of its systematic oversight activities.  Moreover, it provides specific guidance for the execution of root cause analysis for airport ground service providers.

Figure 2: Swissport’s new ground support equipment awaiting certification of the station at Dammam International airport.

3.  Personnel Licensing

Another regulatory initiative involves GACAR Part 68, which introduces the requirement for anyone working for a ground service provider to obtain a work permit issued by GACA, irrespective of whether they are engaged on a full or part-time basis.  Employees may apply for work permits for 13 different operational functions.  In the new framework there are two distinct parameters.  Firstly, post holders are responsible for assessing employee competence, before released to duty, and attest in writing to their eligibility to perform a given job.  Secondly, all relevant training certificates are submitted for the review of GACA to verify that the applicant has undertaken the training modules foreseen in the IATA training guidelines. These certificates must be issued by a training organization acceptable to the aviation authority, as elaborated in the relevant Advisory Circular AC-151.  The regulation also introduces the ICAO Level 3 English proficiency requirement for anyone in direct contact with the cockpit crew, such as the headset or radio operators. 

GACA is also studying the standardization of all relevant ground operations training courses, equivalent to the high standards of Part-66 licensing for aircraft mechanics. This will cover the compulsory topics and content, as well as it will define the minimum required time for theoretical and practical elements including on-the-job practice under supervision.

4.  Improving Safety & Service Delivery

It is widely appreciated that flight safety starts on the ground.  GACA’s novel regulatory framework for certifying ground service providers builds on existing industry standards and best practice.  It also establishes new requirements to augment safety and raise the quality of ground services.  Yet, this is only the beginning, there is still more to be done for the successful implementation of the new regulatory framework.  The opening of the ground handling market in Saudi Arabia, in conjunction with the new requirements for certification, will enhance competition.  Ultimately, this collaborative work will boost the level of service provided, setting an example for other countries to follow.

Click for the PDF of the published Article