American Beauty

Cover Story American Beauty By Richard Rowe February 2000 With its lavish lines and dashing good looks, San Francisco Airport’s stunning new international terminal building is a conceptual dream. Passengers will love it, but what about the...

United, for instance, has changed some procedures dramatically to counter the bugs. The airline currently handles between 30-70 percent of its domestic to international transfer baggage manually every day. The design of the baggage handling system may be good but, for now, United has to hire additional workers to support it.

According to McKinley, the airport is not sitting idle. "The baggage handling system alone has worked very well, but some of the integrated components such as the security screening have involved more work. There are some components where we need to evaluate their performance and, if necessary, make changes."

The need for additional training is also a factor, according to the airport. "There are ways of handling baggage with a pure sort system that are different to the way it is handled in a straight line baggage system just going to a carousel," comments McKinley. "Airlines must learn to expose bag tags so that they can be read by a reader and not laid upside down."

He does concede, however, that the airport is in a "realistic state of discontent" with the baggage handling system. "It’s not completed to the level we wanted it to be."

Other systems have also to find their feet, according to John Ankrom, Manager of Worldwide Flight Services’ operation at San Francisco. The computerized gate management system currently struggles with multiple airlines departing for the same destination at the same time. It knows, for instance, that a bag is going to Tokyo, but does not always know which flight to send it to, says Ankrom.

Despite all the training, the fact remains that the level of automation in the new terminal represents a major learning curve for airport workers. For its part, the airport continues to conduct twice-daily meetings to run through the day’s schedule in terms of expected passenger and baggage volume.

Fortunately, the airlines and handlers are working well together. "If I get a bag for Northwest for Manila I walk it over and ask what they have for me," says Ankrom. "If I’ve got one, they’ve got one. It has really brought us all together as a community. We all pitch in and help out."

In addition, the sheer size of the terminal has exacerbated some of the personnel problems that have been a defining issue at the airport for the last two or three years. The economy in the Bay area is sky high and the cost of living astronomical. At less than two percent unemployment, and with all the high tech jobs emerging in neighboring Silicon Valley and elsewhere, airlines and ground handlers have found it increasingly hard to attract and then retain good employees.

As a result, high turnover of staff has long been the norm at San Francisco. From the airport’s point of view, this resulted in greater numbers of inexperienced staff and a corresponding concern about airport safety and security. The airport responded with the introduction of what it calls a Quality Standards Program (QSP) for all companies whose employees had an impact on airport safety and security.

"The QSP established minimum standards for covered employees related to hiring, training, equipment maintenance, benefits and compensation for companies who wish to operate on airport property," explains Van Hoy.

The QSP began on April 1, 2000 and applied to security service providers and the airport’s ground handling community--which must have seen some interesting contract renegotiations with the airlines. It was then rolled out to include Skycaps (June 1) and then the airline community (October 1), which Van Hoy says was the greatest challenge.

"What it did was level the playing field to a higher minimum, or the level that the airport thought was achievable in this market and would limit the turnover and create a better employee pool for everyone so that people were not changing jobs so much," says Van Hoy.

From April 1, the minimum salary was pegged at $9 an hour with benefits and $10.25 without benefits. This rose to $10 with benefits and $11.25 without benefits on January 1 this year. It will now be adjusted annually in accordance with increases in the Bay Area Cities/Consumer Price Index (CPI).

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