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...

Ground handlers became subject to airport operating permits for the first time rather than being brought in by the airlines themselves. The airport had established a direct relationship with its handling community. "It has brought us together in both a work and a documented relationship," says Van Hoy.

This was not the only change in the airport/handler relationship. Historically, the airport had not leased or permitted exclusive space to ground handlers because of the past turnover in handling operators. However, the airport recognized that there was now a group of handlers maintaining a definite presence at the airport. The airport decided to permit ramp level space with three different locations now designated for Swissport, Ogden, and Monarch. Each permit runs for 30 days. The thinking is that if a handler does leave or no longer needs the space the airport is able to take back control of it.

It is too early to tell what impact the QSP has made on staff turnover and the overall safety culture at San Francisco, but Van Hoy is upbeat. "Turnover and airfield incidents seem to have decreased. We know that people are being trained to a certain standard, there are minimum hiring standards, and people are being paid a sensible wage. Ground handlers are no longer just competing on price, so now they have to compete on service."

John Ankrom at Worldwide appreciates the airport’s efforts. "The airport recognized the fact that the handling companies really do try their best particularly when having to deal with a small labor force. If it wasn’t for the airport, I think you would see some division between the handling agents. We all share information and are in the same boat with pay and benefits, so it’s up to us to make sure that we stay competitive."

Others are more skeptical about the QSP, saying that it has simply leveled the minimum wage rather than making the employee pool any more attractive. "We are now paying the same kind of candidates a dollar or so more, rather than improving the candidates," believes Ray Klinke at United.

As an airline, Klinke can offer the additional carrot of flight benefits, but even a major employer like United needs to roll its sleeves up and get into the job market. The airline is participating in welfare to work programs and recruiting at high schools. It also attends more job fairs than ever before, and offers cash incentives for referrals that lead to employment.

Klinke understands well that the ramp environment is not for everyone. It is genuine niche employment. "Our standards haven’t dropped, but our ability to attract to those standards has become more of an issue," he says.

Ankrom sees more long-term benefits. "In the long run, it [the QSP] will help us, but we haven’t seen a great benefit so far," he says. "As a community we still have the turnover, and there is still the shortage of help. What the QSP has done is allow us to go back to the customer and recoup some of these costs so we can go out and look at how to attract better employees. I have not heard of one carrier that has balked at all.

"You can say that it’s the cost of doing business in the Bay area. Likewise, there is the cost of going from old to new. The square footage has doubled in this terminal, and while I won’t say that handling rates have doubled, I have heard that some companies went up as high as 30%."

Worldwide is one of the companies eager to expand its business at the airport. Currently, Worldwide offers passenger handling to Philippine Airlines and baggage services for American Airlines. Ankrom is convinced, however, that there is a wider market for Worldwide if only the company can be granted a license to offer a full handling service.

"We are one of those [handlers] banging on the airport’s door every day asking to come in. We are looking at one potential customer which has some space set aside for a handling agent, but it’s small and probably wouldn’t help more than just that one customer. There are other opportunities and there are some domestic carriers that have space.

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