Operational Streamlining of an Integrated Ground Service Provider (GSP)


Draft of the Interview published in
Airports International, November 2013

Airports International asks George Saounatsos, CEO of Bahrain Airport Services, about the challenges of
operationally streamlining a fully integrated airport ground service provider

1. Airports International: Bahrain Airport Services (BAS) is one of the oldest airport ground service providers in the Gulf region; how would you define its profile?


George Saounatsos: "BAS has been serving the aviation community for more than 35 years with a handling capability of 9 million passengers per annum, a workforce of about 2,000 permanent staff and an additional 1,000 contract employees. BAS is a fully integrated ground service provider comprising four distinct business units, namely airport & ground handling services, cargo and warehousing, in-flight catering and aircraft line maintenance. We also operate a wholly owned subsidiary, BAS Aircraft Engineering Training Center, under EASA Part-147 Approval."


2. AI: What are the main operational objectives for an organization of this age, size and complexity?


GS: "A company of that age and size, with deep-rooted issues accumulated over the years, across the full organizational and operational spectrum, may experience symptoms of corporate fatigue.  Our objective therefore was to transform the company into a modern, competitive and efficient organization with a performance-based and customer-centric culture leading to value added services.  On the operational side, the ultimate goal is to achieve high and consistent service delivery standards while increasing our productivity and effectively controlling our costs in all our business units."


3. AI: What is the roadmap for achieving better operational efficiency in ground handling?


GS: "Our ‘operational triangle’ is composed of three known fundamental elements, namely staff, processes and systems.  Thus, a number of key changes have been implemented, or are in the process, to address all three aspects.  A multi-phased mission-critical project was launched early in 2012 to tackle issues holistically in our core ground handling domain.  First, an in-depth gap analysis was conducted to identify the shortfalls or missing elements in the operational environment and sequence of events in the integrated servicing of an aircraft turnaround, be it resources, skills, procedures or system oriented.  An intensive process re-engineering program was launched to re-design the operating processes with a bottom-up approach, ie, starting from the basic daily communication and coordination protocols and build the way up to the higher level of systemic requirements, processes and procedures.  This enabled us to redefine the way to operate, to simplify and streamline operations, take advantage of synergies and optimize the utilization of our human resources and ground equipment, supported by new technologies.  The structure of the key operational units has also been modified to allow for a more efficient and lean management set-up by eliminating redundant intermediate levels and promoting shared responsibility and direct accountability.  All these, described in a nutshell, require an immense amount of collective and laborious effort, energy and continuous follow-up."


4. AI: How can your staff achieve higher operational efficiencies and service quality?


GS: "Our human capital is the most important asset and, as a service provider, it all comes down to the way each individual colleague, be it a check-in agent, a dispatcher, a load controller or a loading supervisor, handles our passengers and customer airlines. Thus initial and recurrent training, as well as the ongoing development of our people, is a priority in order to enhance service delivery standards as well as strengthen the second tier of command and methodically plan for management succession.  The selection process and training of our front line staff became more robust, aiming at a proactive culture and consistent service quality.  An intensive cross-training program, launched last year, is also under way to qualify more staff to perform multiple tasks and ultimately result in reduced headcounts to cope with the same operational workload.  Sometimes people tend to think in terms of ‘under-staffing’ although the first parameter that needs to be addressed is the ‘under-skilling’ of existing human resources and the way it is utilized."


5. AI: In 2013 BAS introduced a new Resource Management System [RMS].  What are the benefits and challenges from the implementation of such a new system?


GS: "After a period of customization, BAS initiated in July the first trials of its newly deployed RMS.  This will enable the company to plan for the optimal use of its workforce and better manage real-time operations.  The new system, which is based on the SITA-Workbridge platform, incorporates all its design components, namely the planning, rostering and real-time modules.  The launch of such a system introduces a new approach and operational philosophy and usually goes hand-in-hand with the implementation of new communication and coordination protocols, a new operational concept and thus new standard operating procedures written from scratch.  The challenge is to timely incorporate the necessary organizational and operational transformation that will enable the successful implementation of the system and the new methodologies that brings along.  We formed an elite project management team, also in charge of training the end-users on the system, while this unit will undertake the role of the central recourse planning for all BAS operational divisions.  One of the key variables though remains the pace at which our staff can absorb the new knowledge and techniques brought by the system and how they will embrace its utilization, overcoming the inherent human resistance to change.  Top management involvement and support is imperative for the new system to succeed."

6. AI: What are the main operational changes along with the RMS implementation?


GS: "BAS used to have its operational functions scattered all over the airport.  Now we are moving to a modern integrated and centralized concept.  All functions/coordinators engaged in the turnaround of an aircraft will be seated in one operations control room, adjoining to dedicated areas for load control, documentation, loading supervisors and turn around coordinators.  Thus, with the formation of a centralized operations center, the efficiency in communication and control and the improvement in response to issues arising in day-to-day situations will be considerable.  This set-up, long missing from BAS, is introduced through a number of organizational re-arrangements in functions, responsibilities and staff job descriptions, both on shift and line management."

7. AI:  Given the different business units and complex operating environment, how does BAS monitor its operational performance?


GS: "As part of the comprehensive monitoring of quality and service delivery performance, we are at the final stage of implementing our operational performance monitoring system, which compiles several key performance indicators in all aspects of operations, safety, security and service delivery.  This application was developed in-house by our Information and Communication Technology department after the successful implementation of our corporate performance monitoring system in 2012.  The system generates reports for monitoring systematically multiple operational parameters as well as adherence to service level agreements with customer airlines.  Our dedicated internal audit team is in charge of the continuous monitoring and assessment of safety and operational performance against established corporate, customer and ISAGO (International Safety Audit for Ground Operations) requirements.  Last year we also established a high-level root cause analysis procedure for all operational and safety occurrences while we ‘categorized’ and ‘codified’ all findings so that we can automatically track potential patterns and identify associated risks for coming up with the complete course of corrective actions for each occasion."

8. AI: What would be the next step in operational enhancements?


GS: "The next step is to automate all our ground handling processes with the use of GPRS/WLAN hand-held technology, ie PADs, where each turn-around coordinator will be able to have the complete picture and control of the aircraft servicing status, from chocks-on to chocks-off, at any single moment.  This will boost error-free operations, on-time performance, enhance operational safety and improve service delivery quality.  We are currently examining different options and products."


9. AI: How would you describe the main external challenges BAS faces?


GS: "Reshaping and quickly adapting our business model to the changing market dynamics domestically, as well as regionally, is one of the main challenges.  At the macro level, in the Gulf region, we are situated within a one-hour radius from three major ‘airline-airport-ground handler’ systems hosting some of the most rapidly expanding air carriers in the world and this constitutes a challenge by itself.  The scale achieved by these mega-hubs generate by default an extremely competitive environment for our national carrier and consequently for both the airport operator and BAS as interlaced organizations.  Furthermore, BAS is a privately-owned business entity with no direct or indirect state subsidies, unlike other ground service providers across the region.  Given the circumstances, I consider it imperative that all the major aviation stakeholders on the island work closely together and support each other in order to build a model that can withstand those externalities and safeguard the development of the local aviation business."


10. AI: What is your perspective on Bahrain’s aviation sector and how is BAS affected by the recent developments in the sector

GS: "The aviation industry plays a pivotal role in Bahrain's economy in terms of gross domestic product and employment contribution.  Yet, the current market dynamics, the scale of the local market, as well as present timing can hardly justify changing the business model prevailing in the Middle East.  The recent closure of Bahrain Air, which had an approximate 8% market share, left only one domestic airline.  Gulf Air became the crucial driver of the aviation sector and although it has scaled down its flight activity, it maintains a robust 55% market share.  Currently the airline is undergoing an extensive restructuring program, rationalizing its network and fleet composition and, to a certain extent, redefining its product.  Our success is inherently linked to the outcome of this restructuring and the type and volume of aircraft movements through Bahrain Airport.  Over the next few years traffic figures can be enhanced given a stable socio-economic environment, Gulf Air's potential code-sharing with other airlines and its establishment of a sizeable regional ‘hub & spoke’ system, as well as the desire of some air carriers to come to Bahrain or increase the frequency of their scheduled flights."


11. AI: What is the recipe for effective leadership in this operating environment?


GS: "For management, BAS provides a demanding environment given the diversity and complexity of its operations, but also in terms of the variety and depth of local factors, sensitivities and constraints.  Simultaneously implementing a significant number of radical changes throughout the corporate and operational spectrum puts your leadership skills to the test.  It is essential to build a realistic vision embraced by your staff and to drive a change that inspires your people yet is attainable.  You need to set up a constructive strategy and work closely with your people towards its implementation; be able to see the global and high-level picture, while at the same time possess solid know-how to ‘zoom-in’ on specific matters and support your staff in identifying creative solutions.  Listen, and have the cognitive intelligence to feel and understand your people, establishing a climate of integrity, fairness and mutual respect. Above all, be transparent, humble and ready to assume the responsibility of a failure while attributing the success achieved to the team."

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