EU’s Ground Handling Reforms At An Impasse

The European Union’s ground handling industry was on the verge of some big changes. One year ago, the European Commission proposed a package of reforms designed to improve airport services by increasing an airline’s choice to three ground handlers from two at most major EU airports.

On Nov. 6, however, the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport (TRAN) voted to reject the commission’s ground handling proposals. The vote was close – 22 votes against; 20 in favor and two abstentions.

Many members feared that the proposal would lead to a deterioration of working conditions and safety, and said there was no evidence that the regulation would increase the overall efficiency of ground handling operations.

The vote against the measures isn’t binding, and the full European Parliament is expected to vote on the proposals in December.

The TRAN vote came one day after some 2,000 demonstrators from 10 EU member states demonstrated outside the Parliament in Brussels. The demonstrations, organized by the European Transport Workers Federation, capped off an extensive campaign by trade unions across the EU against any changes to the current ground handling regulations.

“Workers all over the world are under attack,” said Enrique Carmona, chair of the union’s civil aviation section, after the vote, “and globalization has turned into a threat instead of an opportunity. The decision can be seen as a victory for workers, but only a partial victory because the truth is that we need a new legal framework that protects workers’ rights.”

The unions’ main contention was that the 1996 rules that broke ground handling monopolies and led to a choice of two ground handling firms, have eroded workers’ rights and only served to save money for the airlines (To read about the current rules, go on line to read about sidebar “Directive 96/67/EC.”)

An estimated 60,000 people are employed in the ground handling industry across the EU.

In the other corner, the Association of European Airlines stated after the vote that competition was still needed: “As a result of the decision, the ground handling market will remain limited to only two suppliers at some of the largest European airports, thereby protecting existing monopolies and depriving both passengers and airlines of more efficient and competitive ground handling services.”

That leaves everyone involved still facing market pressures that motivated the European Commission to push for reforms in the first place.

The commission announced a comprehensive “Better Airports” package of measures to help increase the capacity of Europe’s airports, reduce delays and improve the quality of service offered to passengers. In addition to the ground handling reforms, the package also included changes to regulations covering airport noise and airline slots.

“On present trends,” said Siim Kallas, the EU’s transport commissioner last year, “19 key European airports will be full to bursting by 2030. The resulting congestion could mean delays for half of all flights across the network. Faced with intense global competition, if we do not change the way we do business, we may not be doing business at all.”

In the best of circumstances, European airports are congested with little opportunity to expand all the while operating within a tight airspace. Problems with one flight at one airport can quickly compound delays throughout the system.

On its Web site, the commission states flatly that its 1996 rules are no longer sufficient to make overall improvements to EU aviation and puts the blame squarely on ground handlers: “The overall quality of ground handling service has not kept up with evolving needs in terms of reliability, resilience, safety, security and environmental performance.”

And if that’s not enough, the commission goes on to say the “problems such as turning around aircraft are the source of 70 percent of the delays suffered by flights in Europe.”

More Than Just Choice

There’s more, however, to the ground handling proposals than a choice of service providers.

Here’s a summary of the other reforms:

  • Establish a new role for airport management as “ground coordinator.” This would give airports more control over all ground handling services and, most importantly, allow management to establish minimum standards of performance for all ground handlers at the airport.
  • Clarify the legal framework for training and transferring staff. This could mean compulsory training requirements and forcing a ground handler who previously held a contract to transfer its trained staff to the ground handler that wins the new contract.
  • Recognize mutual national approvals. “Mutual recognition” across borders is one driving force behind the European Union. In other words, an approval issued by one member state would entitle the ground handler to provide service in a different member state.
  • Introduce greater transparency. This would enable airlines and their handlers to better understand how fees are charged for such centralized systems as baggage.

The changes sought by the reforms affect only major European airports with annual passenger traffic of more than 5 million passengers. The choice of service providers at smaller airports will continue to be limited.

While labor looks to protect jobs and the airline industry looks to manage costs, other political factors play against the proposals.

Germany, the EU’s biggest economy, has traditionally been against the presence of too much competition in ground handling services at its airports.

The German government has taken full advantage of the right to limit competition to just two companies. Not surprisingly, then, Germany, along with Austria and Poland, do not support the reforms.

Although the November vote was against the ground handling reforms, TRAN did approve the other reforms with some modifications.

Kallas tweeted that he would consider all options, “including possible withdrawal of the proposal” after the November vote.

As required under the EU’s legislative process, the proposals were passed by the European Council, which represents the views of EU member state governments, and now will come before the European Parliament, which represents the views of the EU’s citizens.


Eugene Gerden is an international free-lance writer, covering the global aviation and ground support industry. He writes for numerous industry publications and can be reached at