"We are regarded as leading edge in low cost airlines and Groundstar knows that if it does well for us at Stansted then it has an opportunity to grow with us elsewhere." Groundstar is already scheduled to take over the airline's smaller handling operation at Birmingham International Airport in June. A lean, medium-sized service provider, Groundstar offers services to a range of airlines including British Airways, Air 2000, Monarch, Britannia, and Go at five airports in the UK: London Stansted, London Heathrow, Newcastle, Manchester, and Birmingham.
At 98 flights a day, the multi-million [British] pound, five-year Ryanair contract would be a big deal for a handler twice its size, and Groundstar's Managing Director, Tim Briers, is understandably delighted. He believes the award speaks volumes about the company's ability to be flexible, whomever the customer. "We are not specifically targeting high or low cost airlines," Briers told GSE Today. "We are targeting airlines with ground handling issues to solve as well as working in partnership with our existing customers to further improve quality and value."
Briers sees no difficulty in handling a mixture of low cost and full service carriers - "British Airways is our largest customer" - as long as the flexibility exists to tailor a product to the demands of volume and speedy turnarounds. "In some ways, they [low cost] are simpler particularly because aircraft commonality means standardisation in equipment and training," says Briers. "As a ground handler, we get high utilisation of both."
Low cost airlines may have different needs in terms of service options, but they do not necessarily mean low handling rates. "We just take out some of the service elements and tailor the price to the product," says Briers.
And, a passenger is still a passenger, he adds, whomever they fly with. "Ask passengers what they really want and it is to get on the aircraft as quickly as possible and reach their destination safely. Satisfy the passenger and you satisfy the customer airline."
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
Briers says that Groundstar is looking long-term with Ryanair but has taken steps to mitigate any potential risks. Additional GSE has been leased [from TCR UK] rather than bought, with the result that the brand-new contract is served by mostly brand-new equipment.
Although Ryanair's model allows opportunities for the handling community, and specifically companies like Groundstar, Clifton is clear that the airline is not about to bundle all of its ground handling contracts with one service provider. "It would be a huge negotiation and the ground handler has you over a barrel," he says. "It's far better for us to divide and conquer."
What Ryanair relishes is the fact that the award of a major contract at London Stansted gives a company like Groundstar the critical mass required to step in and provide competition elsewhere.
Ryanair's new handling partner needs no reminding that its customer has different needs to other airlines, with the emphasis on speed and cost. "We just don't want to pay for services that we don't need, and not many handlers are geared up for that," notes Clifton. "We have no air bridges, no passenger bussing, no stands and we use 'power on, power off' operations."
A LOOK TO THE FUTURE
Clifton sees the ground handling world treading a similar path to the airlines, with larger ground handlers introducing a low cost operation within its main service oriented option. "I think ground handlers have to make their minds up and become one or the other."
For now, Groundstar is something of an exception in that it is happy to accommodate no frills airlines in its customer base. "I'm sure this will change as other handlers realise what the future holds," suggests Clifton. "After September 11, long-haul, transatlantic lights vanished and ground handlers were left with the bread and butter like us and easyJet. We are never peaky - always busy throughout the year. Half of them, though, don't want the business of people like us. They should think about that."
In mainland Europe, Ryanair flies to secondary airports such as Stockholm Skavsta instead of Stockholm Arlanda in Sweden, and operates two growing hubs at Brussels Charleroi and Frankfurt Hahn. Ryanair negotiates hard with each airport for a bundled package that includes ground handling, landing charges, and other standard airport charges. Most of the airports are too small to offer choice in ground handling and provide the service themselves.
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