ISAGO Begins to Take Hold

Dr Gareth M. Evans

Three years on from its launch and, although it is still effectively in its infancy, the IATA Safety Audit for Ground Operations (ISAGO) program is undeniably gathering momentum as interest in the potential benefits it has to offer continues to grow around the world. To date, there are 61 ground service providers (GSPs) at 85 locations across the globe which have undergone the necessary corporate audit and full audit of at least one of their stations that is required to be listed on the ISAGO registry. It represents a measure of how the industry has begun to embrace the idea.

The program has three simple aims — to improve ground operations safety, reduce ground damage and bolster the efficiency of auditing — and the logic behind this is compelling. With the current operational environment typically lacking consistency and simplicity, confusion is inevitable; standardizing procedures worldwide, so the thinking goes, should eventually result in measurable improvements across the industry.

Fostering continuous improvement

The potential for GSPs is clear, not least because the structure of the program itself, which requires renewal audits every two years, fosters a process of continuous improvement, as Jon Conway, divisional senior VP of Dnata Airport Operations at Dubai International Airport explains. “In May 2008, Dnata entered the ISAGO registry, both headquarters and stations being audited by trained and experienced auditors,” he says. “In April 2010, a renewal audit was conducted to check on our ability to continue our registration and those audit findings then helped us in further improving various aspects of operational safety, which are complimented by our OHSAS 18001:2007 certification.”

This is something echoed by Sergey Domradov, one of a number of independent safety training consultants riding the rising tide of cultural change amid ground handlers in Russia, the CIS and many of the now independent former Soviet satellites. “Companies here have been quick to see the advantages from the start,” he says, pointing to the fact that Lithuanian-based Baltic Ground Services (BGS) was the first handler in Europe — and only the tenth in the world — to be registered. “ISAGO is becoming very popular now. It is partly for the savings. Like everywhere else, reduced costs speak loudly, but mainly for reasons of nationalistic pride to do things better and safer. This program gives a framework to achieve that progress.”

Just as importantly, it also means that the necessary effort involved to subsequently keep up those standards receives a measure of public recognition too. As BGS CEO, Saulius Batavicius, commented on the company’s certificate renewal, it “indicates that we maintain the highest level of safety and airline companies we serve at Vilnius airport receive ground handling services that conform to internationally recognized standards.”

Raising awareness on the ground

Undergoing regular re-examination in this way can also have a wider spin-off effect on workforce awareness, and as Abdellah Ben Lahcen, auditing and quality assurance controller for Airline Supervisors Experts (ASE) in Morocco, testifies, this has proven to be a valuable bonus. “In addition to the fact that ASE was proud to join the ISAGO program and gain the trust of its customers all over the world, our staff are now more aware about the safety and security issues than ever and are doing their part to implement the safety and security procedures on the ground,” he says.

For Dnata, this was one of the key factors behind their decision to be early participants. “We are on a bit of a crusade to raise the safety bar,” explains Conway, “and an IATA program which, we believe, will become a minimum requirement for major IATA carriers seemed like a no brainer.” Their base operation in Dubai was the first ground-handling agent in the world to gain ISAGO registration, and all of their international businesses are following, with the Zurich and Geneva stations in Switzerland this year. In the words of Stewart Angus, the company’s divisional senior VP for international operations, “having an aspiration to be the best has enabled Dnata’s international ground-handling business to expand internationally.”

Clearly ISAGO could help continue that expansion, particularly if, as Conway suggests, the program does ultimately become established as the de facto global benchmark, since the multiple iterations of the routine audit cycle experienced by the likes of Dnata and other early-joiners should help position them ahead of the pack. As many have observed, inspiring a culture of safety can play a major role in driving ground handling costs down, and then keeping them there. There may well be “no competition when it comes to safety,” as IATA CEO Giovanni Bisignani has said, but there is certainly an undoubted commercial advantage to be gained from palpable compliance.

In addition, ISAGO continues to grow as more airports and civil aviation authorities mandate the program. GSPs have been required to be ISAGO registered at Seattle Tacoma International Airport, Montego Bay Jamaica Airport, Lebanon and Turkey (for GSPs providing passengers, cargo and ramp services), while on the other side, Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport has named ISAGO as one of its oversight components.

Audit experience

Nevertheless, at least for the moment, ISAGO remains the “new kid on the block,” which inevitably leaves it needing to work alongside currently established custom and practice. On a positive note, experience has shown that the scheme can dovetail into existing occupational health and safety management initiatives with relative ease, allowing handling companies to benefit from their current quality, environmental and health & safety management know-how. ASE’s Ben Lahcen, for instance, has found that this can bring significant potential benefits in terms of reducing the overall resources needed to be allocated as a result. “The process of registration didn’t take much time,” he says, “as ASE had already prepared for this program by establishing a QES System and security and safety procedures before we started.”

Moreover, although as Groundforce Portugal’s Eduardo So Marcos points out, certification involves a level of expenditure for the registration process and the necessary training for implementing this system, the pay-back can be swift. “These initial costs soon became an investment to the extent that the practices that were acquired allowed in fact a more rigorous carrying out of procedures related to security, minimizing operational risks, reducing both accidents and costs,” he says. The certification process itself, he continues “was quite a rewarding experience because it allowed the exchange of experiences and adjustment to new work routines.”

It seems that the picture is somewhat less rosy, however, when it comes to the widely held expectation that the program would lead to the avoidance of much of the necessity for the multiple and repetitive auditing that has for so long bedeviled the industry.

Having been involved quite literally from the get-go, Dnata have a unique perspective on the issue. “We have been a little surprised at the volume of airline audits still conducted post registration,” says Conway, “even from airlines who subscribe to the audit pool.” Any hopes that ISAGO registration would result in a noticeable fall in the numbers of redundant airline audits appear to have been largely unfulfilled; in 2010 alone, the Dubai operation was audited by no fewer than 29 airlines. When they raised the issue with the relevant authorities, the message came back that the program was still new, and that it would take some time for airlines to accept ISAGO audits in lieu of their own. Three years from the program’s inception, this evidently is a less than ideal outcome, but as he readily concedes, for what is effectively work in progress, “it is still relatively early days.”


That being so, it is even earlier days for the IATA Ground Operation Manual (IGOM) initiative, which aims to overcome the current situation where each airline produces its own ground operations manual, often resulting in variations of procedure, even for the same aircraft type. In addition, some GSPs produce their own manuals for use as the default, when there is no clear direction from an individual airline, which tends to muddy the waters further. Quite apart from the innate time inefficiencies that result from having to meet different standards, the safety risks increase too, in terms of both the potential for worker injuries and damage to aircraft and equipment.

Borrowing from the ethos of ISAGO, IGOM represents a further attempt at harmonizing the industry worldwide, being designed to provide a single, definitive manual, formed from the synthesis of existing best practice. Though a challenging task — not least because it will also have to accommodate specific regulatory demands and company policies — the indications from IATA are that it is progressing on schedule, and the first edition will be released during the first quarter of 2012.

Implications for outsourcing

It is clearly an ambitious project, but its implications could be especially important in the light of the growing global trend towards outsourcing. The prospect of a standardized, consistent service from third-party handlers around the globe that the arrival of the new manual should bring is something which could influence the decision to outsource ground handling.

Going down the outsourced route inherently means that a large amount of procedural control is surrendered to the “bought-in” servicers, and for airlines, that raises the specter of potential damage if their process is improperly performed or imperfectly supervised. With a core set of agreed ground operations procedures adopted by GSPs, airlines should be able to make the move to outsourcing with much greater confidence, though it is hard to imagine that, as with ISAGO audits, they will not take a while to be entirely comfortable with accepting the new standards manual in place of their own.

Be that as it may, the idea does seem to be pushing on the proverbial open door. As ASE’s Ben Lahcen puts it, “our first priority as an airline representative is safety and security for both the airline customer and the airport staff providing services on the ground.” Domradov concurs. “There is a real desire amongst ground handlers to improve what they do, to be better and more able,” he says. “These programs make it possible to raise those competencies — even if it will need a little time.”