Northern Exposure

Airport Terminal Services Inc. is a medium-size ground handling company that has been anchored in the North American market since 1975. It has since grown to about 35 airport locations with more than 2,000 employees.

Like most ground handling companies in North America, Airport Terminal Services has experienced the effects of a changing marketplace over the past year, including shrinking flight capacities and most notably, the Delta-Northwest merger. “As a result of their merger and some of that activity going in-house, we really had a fairly significant change in the business platform,” says Sally Leible, president and COO of Airport Terminal Services.

But the company has had better luck outside the U.S. border. “We just had a great year in Canada in terms of new business and diverse business, which is what we’re most proud of,” Leible explains.

Growth in the North
The company’s first foray into Canada came in 1999 with the acquisition of a small ground handling company. With that deal, the company took over operations for WestJet at three locations: Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. Since that time, the company has expanded to eight locations throughout Canada. Growing upon its existing relationships with domestic and international carriers, ATS has experienced significant growth in Canada in 2009.

In March of that year, the company was awarded a contract for ramp, passenger and cleaning services for AeroMexico in Toronto, adding to LAN. The contract was for the daily servicing of the carrier’s B737 and was the second contract location for AeroMexico. And in May, Airport Terminal Services opened a new location at Montreal — its eighth location in Canada — to service WestJet operations. It is the fifth location where the company provides ramp handling for the airline.

The company recorded another major development at Toronto, picking up a full handling contract for Air France-KLM in October. The contract to provide service for multiple daily flights for a range of wide-body aircraft included passenger services, cabin cleaning, ramp handling, traffic operation and lounge staffing. In November, the company also gained the full handling services contract for Continental Airlines at Edmonton International Airport, and, in its most recent development, the company picked up a full-service contract for Grupo TACA in Toronto for its A320 service to El Salvador and Costa Rica.

Leible says the contract wins for the international carriers were a significant achievement for the company, allowing it to diversify its portfolio. The majority of its contract wins, she says, were a result of established relationships with carriers. “We do business within the US, and we’ve strengthened our airline partnerships in Canada, so it’s been natural, organic growth,” she says.

Company Focus
With the recent developments in Canada demanding more staff — for example, the KLM contract in Toronto created 100 more positions with the company — ATS has remained focused on its employee initiatives. It has continued to expand its ATS University, which the company created in 2003, developing two additional programs in 2009.

One program developed was the Leaders Excelling and Achieving Performance, or LEAP. “That is a program that is really dedicated to what we will call our second-tier managers out in the front line, the supervisors and shift managers — developing their overall customer service skills,” Leible says.

The company also created 2Become, a program designed to assist employees in moving up within the company. “We’re very dedicated in trying to promote from within and we want to make sure that new hires understand there are opportunities for them within the company, and how they can become ready for those available positions and promotable positions,” she says.

In the area of business development, Leible says the company will focus on the growth of its passenger services segment, which she says has seen double-digit growth year over year. “Our predominant business has been ramp and that has been our core business, but we’ve been extremely pleased to see the growth that the passenger service business has experienced,” she says.

In fact, the company picked up additional contracts for the handling of passengers in 2009, including Horizon Air in Calgary, and US Airways and Lufthansa in Vancouver. “We just found a great niche in providing those services for our customers that we already service on the ramp.”

Strength in Numbers
According to Leible, the outlook for the U.S. market will likely remain tough for companies looking to acquire new business. “It’s a difficult environment,” she explains. “The U.S. carriers have pulled back a lot of capacity, so we have fewer flights to work and the competition is wicked. It’s a fierce environment to operate in, so you certainly have to be dedicated to low-cost and high quality to be a winner in today’s U.S. environment. We plan to be both of those things.”

One thing that Leible says has kept the company competitive is its involvement in Aviance, an international alliance of ground handlers. “I’ve been very active in Aviance and I think that’s one thing that is unique to the ground handling industry, especially to the U.S. and Canada.

“I think that we are on the front edge of always knowing what is happening in the world as it relates to ground handling,” she says. “There are good and best practices that could be shared and used over here in the U.S. and Canada, or vice versa. So I think when you have companies that don’t compete with one another and work hard to make sure there is a service delivery that is high quality, there is a great sharing of best practices and we have really benefited from that.”

Leible says she doesn’t see much growth in terms of new business in the North American market in the near future, so companies must remain on the top of their game to remain competitive. “It’s going to be really important that ground handlers be creative and provide good value and extended partnerships with the airlines, so that they can continue to seek the ground handling community for some of their solutions.”

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