Leading from the Front

Information Technology

Leading from the Front

After more than 30 years working in aviation's upper echelons, Peter Pappas is now using his contacts book to great effect in a slightly different role, as Richard Rowe reports

By Richard Rowe

March 2002

Last October, web-based technology provider AirSphere secured the services of what many young, ambitious companies would give their right arms for — an ambassadorial industry ‘name’ that could help open doors and assist in the next stage of the company’s already impressive business development. The arrival of Peter Pappas as Chairman of AirSphere late last year answered the question surrounding the future direction of a major industry figure following his departure as Chairman and CEO of Worldwide Flight Services. At the same time, it provided a progressive"up and come" like AirSphere with invaluable additional vision and leadership at a time in aviation when both were needed.

Celebrating its second birthday in April, AirSphere has brought to the table a web-based platform that allows airlines and ground handling operators to automate their core operational functions (see"Spheres of Influence" Sept. 2001, GSE Today). A modular, and highly functional, system of ‘spheres’ helps aviation businesses manage aviation service operations and store complex information with the click of a button. Once information is entered into the system, users can view the data from any Internet browser. According to AirSphere, a major selling point is that, with no hardware or software to purchase or maintain, the system reduces operating costs, eliminates the need for paper-based methods of communication, and allows operators to perform detailed performance analysis.

Bringing someone of Pappas’ pedigree on board is entirely in line with a company philosophy that has encouraged input from all sectors of aviation from the very beginning. Few would argue with Niv Schwartz, Founder and CEO of AirSphere, when he says that Pappas’ vast experience in the airline industry, along with his knowledge of airport operations, is likely to contribute greatly to AirSphere’s continued growth.

A glance at the Pappas resume shows just what a catch he is for AirSphere. There is little in the airline world that the charismatic Pappas has not experienced in a more than 30-year career. While much of his time has been spent as a senior executive at American Airlines, Pappas also served as President of several subsidiaries, including the AMR Consulting Group and AMR Services. As mentioned, prior to joining AirSphere, Pappas guided Worldwide Flight Services through a period of repositioning that included three significant acquisitions, and left the company as one of the world’s major ground handling players.

With his move to a service provider of a very different kind, Pappas brings with him a formidable knowledge of what makes the airline world tick. The ins and outs of airline strategic planning, operations, marketing, and sales are second nature. And, following his tenure at Worldwide, the same can be said for the world of ground handling.

Pappas is clearly as excited as Schwartz about the chance to use his industry clout."There is an attractive combination [at AirSphere] between the innovative aspects of the actual technology and the company’s clear perception and understanding of the needs of the industry" says Pappas."The company is very creative and extremely entrepreneurial with a good combination of wisdom and exuberance" Those who work with him will confirm that Pappas supplies more than a little of both.

He is now rolling his sleeves up at a company that first came to his attention during his Worldwide days. Worldwide had worked with AirSphere for more than a year, and the ground handler continues to evaluate the results of a pilot of the Aviation Services Sphere at its major Newark station. The plan, which has stalled slightly following the recent change of ownership at Worldwide, is for the ground handler to use the sphere as a strategic platform for the whole of its network.

Elsewhere, in what would be a massive step forward for AirSphere in terms of bringing its solutions to the market, final negotiations are being conducted to create a similar strategic platform for another ground handling giant, GlobeGround, again following trials — this time at LaGuardia and Montreal.

According to Pappas, such web-based technology represents a giant leap, not to mention a strategic advantage, for ground handling operators keen to improve their operational efficiency and accountability."This tool can eliminate administrative costs in the field and also overhaul the whole cost structure" believes Pappas.

After so many years in larger organizations, the attraction of spearheading the efforts of a company like AirSphere is clear. Pappas is rich in his praise of what the organization has achieved in its short history to date, and applauds the business culture and innovative approach to the development of technology that he genuinely feels can make a difference.

"As consolidation continues to occur, we are seeing the arrival of bigger companies with larger networks" says Pappas."GlobeGround and Servisair between them have more than 200 stations"

What excites Pappas is how, after a slow start, the industry is now beginning to look at web-based technology."It’s a great match, because most companies can’t spend that much on IT"

One reason why the industry has been so slow to look beyond the norm in the past, says Pappas, is because when service providers were owned or influenced by airlines they were inextricably tied into each airline’s own technology."This meant that ground handlers, for instance, did not necessarily develop technology that was specific" he says.

In addition, such web-based solutions and technology are relatively new. Change takes time and usually involves one or two companies taking the plunge first and then others following behind.

Net benefits  NET BENEFITS

Since AirSphere is a Web–based application, upgrades to the system are free for users. AirSphere’s current Aviation Services Sphere provides a comprehensive set of applications that streamline workflow and help simplify the management process. From a standard Internet browser, operation agents and managers can implement, manage and monitor the business cycle from agreements and flight scheduling all the way through invoice generation and billing.

According to AirSphere, many business functions can be managed easily and efficiently from a common shared database including agreements and contracts, scheduling, ramp performance and monitoring, quality control, communications and messaging, plus accounts and invoicing.

AirSphere claims that aviation service providers are able to reduce operating costs and improve quality of service as they manage and share all imperative information involved in the flight service cycle. Likewise, airlines can also monitor and manage service operations through one unified online system. Regardless of the number of providers on their books, airlines can use the system to manage all contracts and SLAs through a common, shared database.

"The last two years have been brutal from a labor point of view" says Pappas."In the past, the industry was in a choice position where it could just throw labor at things. Now it has to justify every man. Web-based technology is perfect for this sort of environment"

On the face of it, there is no shortage of companies that provide module-based solutions for optimizing gate, staff, and equipment management, but relatively few are actually deliverable over the Internet.

Clearly, after the events of September 11, there is more pressure than ever on the ground handling industry to be more efficient."Airlines are looking for price reductions" says Pappas."Therefore, handlers need a tool like this, as they cannot afford to leave 10 cents on the revenue line"

Since last September, AirSphere has changed its emphasis slightly from expanding the number of spheres on offer – cargo and rostering spheres had been discussed – to maturing those pilot projects currently underway with a handful of prospective customers. The focus remains, however, on ground service and support providers.

Pappas’ day-to-day role in all this is not so much delivering the hard sell – although he is quite capable of doing so – but more as an executive door opener. Invaluable to a company like AirSphere, Pappas knows his calls will be returned."I can help us get into see the right customers at the right level, plus provide a little guidance" he says."There has been a very favorable response so far and we are winning over the IT people in the various companies"

Certainly, having someone like Peter Pappas at the helm is a perfect antidote to the current solemn mood in the industry. AirSphere may well have found the final piece of its managerial jigsaw as it accelerates from promising newcomer to outstanding industry service provider.