With airlines' continued struggle to cut costs and focus on greater operating efficiencies along with their ongoing requirements for enhanced ground services; ground handling companies need to concentrate on the delicate balance between expenses and services. PrimeFlight Aviation Services has outlined four basic principles to produce a cost-effective top quality product while delivering more benefits to its airline partners. These four key areas include the employment and training of qualified individuals, the utilization and development of management technology, flexible services with creative delivery and specialized safety environments. The PrimeFlight team will tell you that the goal for successful providers of ramp and additional ground services is the unification of these fundamental elements with a back office system and management structure that deliver efficiency, enhancement and greater value for the airlines while being progressive in service delivery.
PrimeFlight Aviation Services became a division of SMS Holdings two years ago. Located in Nashville, TN, SMS Holdings is a family of four companies which provide housekeeping, security and managed staffing services to high-traffic public facilities. "The common thread among the four companie...," states CEO William Coakley, "we're in the people-driven service business providing niche services to our individual customers." For Coakley, PrimeFlight was a perfect match with the province, attributes and best practices of the other companies, which could be applied directly to PrimeFlight's strong base of qualified people, specialized services and business in the aviation industry.
Hand-picked, Hand-trained, Hands-on
With an excess of 4,000 employees serving more than 60 airports, PrimeFlight's employment and retention perspective is that they are in the business of providing exceptional people to do the job. From a corporate standpoint, their commitment is to not only find outstanding people but to package and provide the services so they can be of even greater value to their customers. Successful practices in any business or operation, according to Keith Wolken, president of PrimeFlight, begin with the profile and talent of each individual employee containing three key ingredients, first and foremost, people skills; second, the ability to develop a strong interest in the job and desire to develop an effortless relationship with the customer, and finally having the technical skills and requirements necessary for the job.
Every PrimeFlight client is assigned an on site manager who has completed a progressive training program. "PrimeFlight had a good group of management people who came along with the acquisition ... it was just getting them acclimated with our philosophy and approach to service," says Coakley. Orienting each new employee to the company and its philosophy of providing the best possible service to the customer is the next step. This hands-on training consists of teaching managers every aspect of the business, from technical to administrative to financial, ensuring the ability to provide the best possible service. In addition, different ramp training specifications required by each airline have to be learned and monitored.
"Trained once, trained for life" is NOT the motto at PrimeFlight. "Every person, whether a supervisor, station manager, regional or division vice president, needs to have their success rate identified so when the time comes, they're able to take on additional training and responsibilities," explains Coakley. With station manager and supervisor training programs already in place at the other SMS Holdings companies, PrimeFlight is in the process of applying these programs to their company and identifying permanent locations across the country. "We feel personally obligated to allow our employees through these specific programs to identify their strengths and weaknesses in order to achieve some of the personal and professional goals they have in their life," declares Coakley.
Checks and Balances through Technology
One of the things Coakley recognized when they first became involved with PrimeFlight was the lack of applied management technology compared with their existing companies, which had improved costs through the advancement in a variety of technological areas. "This is the kind of thing we think will help us become recognized pretty quickly as we apply the technology," states Coakley. "We don't want to be complacent or satisfied with the status quo."
The role of technology in the corporate support center or "back office management system" structure is integral to PrimeFlight's operations in the field. Considered by Coakley as the central nervous system of the company, the back-office system provides support to the field with up-to-the-minute communications and information, accurate records and payroll, continued monitoring of insurance rates and packages, risk management services and timely payments and receipt of products to and from vendors. Though every PrimeFlight on-site manager has completed progressive technical, administrative and financial training and all managers are capable of handling every aspect of the business, the corporate support system affords them the ability to focus directly on the management and care of their specific function, employees and client. "What goes on here at the corporate support center allows managers in the field the freedom to focus on the operation at the airport rather than worrying about what may or may not be happening in the way of payroll or accounts receivable or risk management or whatever function that's provided here," insists Wolken.
Similar to other ground handling companies in the facility/services side of their operations, PrimeFlight manages equipment through a CMMS software program. Tracking equipment to determine its location, maintenance schedule and expense log is crucial to knowing "where the money is going." However, PrimeFlight researches and evaluates the value of implementing new technology, and they do it based on the payback for the customer. Using these simple but "value-added" criteria, they have recently determined the viability of an automated wheelchair reporting and dispatching system utilizing Nextel phone systems, and they commissioned software to be written. The system is in operation at four locations and doing well according to Wolken. The company has added a GPS component to the system which tracks where all of the wheelchair passengers are throughout the airport at any one time. "We had heard through our customers the things they wanted to be able to track. Since we have a strong desire to self report, this fit right into that," says Wolken.
Flexibility in Service and Creativity in Delivery
PrimeFlight currently provides a range of 15 services to more than 25 airlines including all of the majors. Some of these services include ramp, skycap, wheelchair, LAV, cargo, under wing, security, passenger and baggage assistance. I asked Wolken how juggling so many different operations at 60 different locations affects their operations. "What is the customer looking for? They want quality service at a very competitive price," Keith states. "In order to do that we need to have our fixed costs spread across as many expenses or resources in the airport as we can. Offering this number of services from the curb all the way to the ramp allows us to do that."
Rather than commodify their products, SMS Holdings customizes each company's product with individualized yet consistent processes and systems, creating complete quality and control. "It's the same thing you encounter as you go through certain fast-food services," he says. "Everybody knows if you stop in that restaurant when you're traveling from Wisconsin to Florida, you're going to get a consistent taste and a consistent quality. That's what we are trying to do." Through their on site management, PrimeFlight makes sure that they can deliver the same quality product each time.
"It's important for us to measure our performance wherever we can to be certain that the customer receives the best possible service and that we stay attuned to their needs. That stands out as our No. 1 priority," adds Coakley. Customer Stan Ruth, station manager for Continental Airlines in Atlanta puts it plain and simple, "PrimeFlight is more than just a vendor to us, they're family."
Hitting the Safety Jackpot
Developing a culture of airport ramp safety, though not a new topic to the industry, has certainly had resurgence in the past couple of years and it's generally agreed that safe operations begin and end with the proper attitude. Since PrimeFlight's implementation of their Employee Safety Program, designed to encourage and reward excellence in practicing safety on the job, there has been a significant reduction in lost time due to worker's compensation injuries, an increase in accident reporting, a boost in employee morale and a renewed commitment to creating a safer workplace. "We are very safety focused," says Wolken. "We have hazardous material training and monthly safety meetings because in the end safety drives the cost of doing business."
The Employee Safety Program combines three components which include Safety Talks, the Safety Jackpot Game and the Safety Grand Prize Drawing. The first component, Safety Talks is a monthly session conducted by an on-site manager which features subjects that have an impact on workplace safety. Safety Jackpot, the second component, is a scratch game card with a point system where accumulated points can be redeemed for merchandise. Employees at each location earn three monthly game cards if that location doesn't have lost time workers compensation injury, property damage claims and conducts the monthly Safety Talk. The final component is the Grand Prize Drawing incentive with a choice of a new car or $15,000 in cash, which Wolken proudly announced was won by a PrimeFlight employee last year. Eligibility requirements are stringent. The location where the winner works needs to have conducted all Safety Talk meetings, have no more than one lost time work comp injury and property damage below the facility limit for the year.
"PrimeFlight has been doing our ground handling since November 2002," reports Al Greggoire, station manager at Delta Airlines in San Antonio, TX. "They are doing an outstanding job. On an evaluation that was completed for June, they scored a 99.17 out of a possible 100 which is absolutely incredible. The thing that has most impressed me is their concern for safety. Part of that is to make sure we keep our equipment in excellent condition; working well, taking out of service what's not working well and calling time out whenever safety is not at 100 percent so that everyone can regroup and move forward in a safe manner."
Airport ramp operations consist of a community of individuals where attitude, successful working relationships and safety training are paramount. Providing employees with positive leadership and incentives to perform these tasks with precision is, according to PrimeFlight, the crux to ensuring a safer ramp environment.
Tuning into the Future
Within their current menu of services, PrimeFlight's goal is to maintain their flexibility as a company and to make sure they continue to adapt to the changing needs of each customer. "If we see something coming down the road that our customers need or if there is a change in the way of doing business that we need to embrace, then we are going to look to do that," says Wolken. "We just need to be in tune with what's going on and what they are looking for." PrimeFlight has targeted expansion in 45 airports this year alone.
If the natural progression is to outsource more ground handling activities as Wolken believes is the case, then PrimeFlight's fundamental philosophy of strong leadership, customer awareness, specialized service and safety will certainly move them toward their goal of being in every airport they can be across the country.