Out of Africa: An in-depth report of ground handling in South Africa

Ground handling is sometimes seen as the “ugly step-child” of the aviation industry.

Unfortunatly, there are some GSE suppliers who fail to provide an acceptable level of after sales service or support for their products. This could be a result of low sales in the region which doesn’t always warranty the costs of implementing a proper after sales service facility. The manufacturer may have a sales agent in the country who is purely involved in sales and not necissarily knowledgeable in the technical or support aspects. It is not cost effective to maintain stocks of spares which may or may not be available in that country and which may or may
not be required or purchased by the end user.

A case in point. Recently, a European GSE manufacturer, who will remain nameless, supplied a number of items to South Africa. This company did not establish a technical support facility there. Some problems occured with the GSE in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. Staff at both airports made numerous phone calls and sent e-mails requesting assistance. Eventually a service rep was sent to Cape Town and repaired the units there. He did not contact or visit Johannesburg and returned directly to Europe, leaving the Johannesburg units unuseable.

Prior to the election of the Democratic Government in 1994, South Africa was subject to many sanctions from various countries. This made it difficult to obtain certain items of GSE, as well as spares. This forced people to become innovative. Parts had to be overhauled or rebuilt and the GSE had to be modified to accommodate “pirate parts.”

Although the situation has improved with the election of the new government, there are still problems obtaining spare parts.

Maintenance facilities especially, are often sub-standard. The importance of adequate maintenance facilities is misunderstood and has not grown in proportion with the airports. With most airport developments the focus has been on the terminals and apron areas. As a result, existing workshops are too small and not fully equipped to handle the increased number of GSE, or in some cases, the new high tech latest generation GSE.

It must also be noted that despite somewhat primitive facilities in select African countries, it is surprising and commendable what is achieved and how maintenance staff manage to keep GSE serviceable.

A hotly debated issue is that of qualifications or requirements for maintenance staff. The article “Where Do We Get Them” by Tony Vasco in the October 2006 issue of GSW sums it up well. Most GSE is reasonably complex and not as simple as a commercial truck or automobile. The operation is an involved combination of electronics, hydraulics and sometimes pneumatics and motive power all working together to enable the item to function safely and effectively. Figuring out how these elements all work together requires more than a technician who has been trained to carry out a 10,000 mile service check on a one-ton pick-up truck. I have heard of a human resource manager who, when asked to employ maintenance staff, suggested it was simple enough to employ a diesel mechanic, an auto electrician and hydraulics fitter. In theory, a reasonable idea but in practice, it didn’t quite work.

Most GSE manufacturers and suppliers do offer basic training courses on the equipment, usually carried out at the time of the commissioning and handing over of the GSE. They assume the technicians assisting or involved are fully trained and qualified and an informal training session is given. Not wanting to appear uneducated many technicians who don’t fully understand the basic principles, won’t ask questions. The number of ground handling companies in Africa are limited, usually to one or two per country, so the number of properly qualified technicians is also limited.


  • GSE manufacturers and suppliers to consider South Africa’s needs and operational requirements.
  • Good cooling systems are a must.
  • Good after sales service. With the relatively low level of skills available in some areas, small problems become major issues and long down times are experienced. Support your GSE.
  • Some African countries do not have the proper facilities or technology to maintain elaborate systems. Where possible, keep designs simple.
  • Bear in mind that although the bottom line is important, there are limited resources available for GSE purchases. Poor economies and unfavorable foreign exchange rates, place a major burden on South African ground handling companies.

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