As such, management continues to seek out those with technical ability as well as an entrepreneurial attitude. "We are looking for an entrepreneurial engineer if that's not an oxymoron," jokes Comeau. "If a manager does not see an opportunity at his airport, I'm certainly not going to see it."
Pumping Up the Volume
This kind of creative approach, plus the relative stability of fueling as a function, has helped over the last 18 months. The slowing economy and immediate aftermath of 9/11 saw Swissport Fueling suffer like any other service provider, but it could have been much worse. Ever contrary, Southwest Airlines, a major customer, added flights a few days after September 11, while the likes of America West are now back to around 95 percent of flights.
"Our volumes are pretty much where they were and we have actually added customers and locations even since 9/11," explains Comeau.
But the fact remains that the market has changed over the last year and service providers have to be quick witted if they are to manage escalating business costs on the one hand and customers that, quite simply, can't pay for it on the other.
"The first and foremost thing in the minds of any buyer is, as always, safety, followed by home office support and better pricing," explains Comeau. "Barring safety issues, they are looking at what they can hold off on."
With airlines looking for service providers to roll back prices where possible, suppliers have to come up with some original thinking when discussing contracts. "We have to be very specific in terms of what we are going to do with the money and show that, on a per gallon basis, customers are paying less than, say, three years ago," says Comeau.
"But we are certainly one of the top service providers in terms of [minimum] delays, which makes it easier to do business. If you have a delay and accident free environment and offer a fair price, then airlines are a lot more receptive."
Comeau is also keen to use the company's technical know-how to explore additional sources of revenue. Although still in its infancy, one plan is to sell Swissport's expertise on a consultancy basis to the corporate aviation dependent airports that are dotted around Swissport's current mainline stations. Each have their own fueling systems, operated by the corporate operators or local FBOs.
It's a sound plan, believes Comeau. "Such airports
don't have anywhere near our expertise in terms of fuel quality and fuel systems
maintenance. We have people who flat out know what they are doing, so why not
operate on an annual contract basis and audit the airport to help ensure that
their fuel is clean and dry?"
Such a plan also has the added benefit of reducing costs for current customers by providing greater utilization of personnel. "In today's environment, you have to look for other ways to reach the same bottom line," he adds.
The future is all about building on the momentum gained over the last three years and developing that all-important critical mass. "This is a business that feeds on itself in that the bigger you are the more opportunities become available to you."
For now, Comeau does not rule out growth through acquisition, but only certain kinds. Interestingly, the Swissport boss sees many future opportunities, particularly on a pure bid basis, lying outside the US. "Our desire is to expand all over the world in an orderly fashion," he confirms.
Although agonizingly slow, more international airlines are looking to go down the US route and take fueling operations out of the hands of oil companies and bring in independent fuel operators. Swissport Fueling has already responded to several bid requests in Europe and the Middle East.
"We can do the job as well as if not better than an oil company and for a lot less money. This is how we earn our living. Oil companies are in the business of moving products, while we are in the business of serving the customer."
Clearly, Comeau is enthusiastic about the opportunities
that lie ahead and revels in the fact that fueling now has the ear of its Swiss
parent. "We finally have a parent that says 'let's give it a shot'. We
are paying them back for that faith."
Checkport has been entrusted with passenger screening services at Johannesburg Airport, while Swissport will also soon be responsible for all security matters for Delta Air Lines at Kiev Airport.
The extensive agreement, which has been concluded for a three-year period, covers 225 flights a day.