Blue Skies Ahead

When JetBlue decided to enter the Chicago market,the airline needed a ground handling company with experience. JetBlue and Servisair battled the cold Midwest winter and are now looking forward to a smooth ride together

Since its inaugural flight more than seven years ago, JetBlue has grown quickly, adding destinations regularly and expanding its fleet immensely. With its hub at John F. Kennedy Airport, it was natural that many of its business passengers would name Chicago’s O’Hare Airport as a desirable destination.

However, adding O’Hare to its roster was no small challenge. With no available gates the airline had no choice but to wait patiently.

“When we were waiting for gate space at O’Hare, we were fortunate in the sense that the America West and US Airways merger came about,” explains Paul Birkenfeld, general manager for JetBlue. “There is only one common use gate at the airport and America West had been occupying it, but with the merger we were able to make the application for the slot. There was a lot of talk as to how many slots we wanted because they are really hard to get in Chicago right now.”

The airline decided to begin its tenure at O’Hare with a New York-Chicago route and a Chicago-Long Beach trip as well.

“Both of those [routes] have a lot of competition,” says Birkenfeld of JetBlue’s head to head challenge with legacy carriers United, American and Delta.

To hit the ground running, JetBlue needed a ground support team who knew the ropes of one of the busiest airports in the world. A Request for Proposal (RFP) was sent out and of the four companies solicited, Servisair appeared the most attractive with more than 30 years of experience at O’Hare.

“They were not the lowest bidder,” says Birkenfeld. “But we had a little more confidence in Servisair because they were already established at O’Hare and they had the facilities we were going to need. We’ve had some experience with them in other cities as well. Servisair also had the warehousing capabilities which, as a start-up station, were important to us.”

According to Eric Wetzel, general manager for Servisair in Chicago, with the decades of experience his company possesses, it is becoming more and more difficult for it to stay competitive in costs.

“Our costs have increased because we have a seasoned workforce,” he explains. “We’re not as competitive as someone that’s brand new with little overhead. We’ve been doing this for 30 years.”

To combat the company’s increasing costs, Servisair had recently decided to re-evaluate some of its contracts with international passenger carriers and eventually gave termination notices to several carriers at O’Hare’s Terminal 5.

“It’s really about dollars and cents,” Wetzel says. “After 9/11 and the SARS epidemic there were price roll backs to a lot of our customers and now with increasing fuel costs we have not been able to recover those dollars. Those airlines were not willing or able to give their ground handlers an increase so we terminated the contracts.”

Wetzel says the actions the company took at Terminal 5 were an isolated event. “We’re not going to take business just to get bigger,” he says. “We have a business model we stick to and we are only going to take business that makes sense to us.”

Apparently JetBlue made a lot of sense for the company.

“Terminal 2, where JetBlue is located, is a much different operation,” he explains. “It’s easier work than turning a wide body. It’s a little less complex and less equipment-driven. We would love to see more ground handling contracts like this.”

Servisair is currently responsible for baggage handling, aircraft servicing, water and lav, overnight flight cleaning and mail pick-up and delivery for JetBlue for a one-year period. Their relationship began in January, one of the coldest and most bitter months in the Windy City.

“We had some very late nights in the beginning,” says Wetzel. “We should have been wrapped up by 11:30 p.m. or midnight, but there were many nights where we were hitting 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning before our night shift was getting out of there.”

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