GSE Expo 2000 Report
Buyer: Worldwide Flight Services
By Richard Rowe
As one of a handful of internationally active ground handlers, Worldwide Flight Services offers a valuable insight into how such handlers approach equipment procurement, writes Richard Rowe.
As any seasoned ground handler will point out, ground service excellence stands and falls on turnaround time and quality. This is one reason why, although welcome, technological advance in ground support equipment is reviewed extremely carefully by handlers to ensure that they still have the ability to cross utilize the equipment in multiple locations and environments.
There is a curious paradox at play. While vendors the world over raise equipment standards to make operations more efficient and comfortable for the end user, some of those same end users nonetheless get skittish when it comes to perceived bells and whistles on their equipment. The simple fact is that the more technologically advanced equipment becomes, the more the opportunity for potential problems can exist.
No one could accuse Worldwide Flight Services of being a business slouch, and certainly no ground handler creates a network that spans North America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Hong Kong by being backward. But Worldwide nonetheless preaches simplicity first when it comes to GSE procurement, and that is likely to remain the case until the reliability of a given piece of equipment is established.
Scott Whitfill, Regional Director of Maintenance at Worldwide, is as keen as the next person to embrace new technologies and ideas, but is mindful of the company’s limitations. Even more so than any airline, almost every decision he makes must be based on availability of parts and ease of maintenance.
"The timeliness of being able to turn equipment out to us is crucial in the contract business," explains Whitfill. "Rarely do we have more than 30 days, and frequently less."
"It’s about the ability to go to several vendors who can supply our needs at a cost saving to the company," adds Whitfill’s fellow Regional Director of Maintenance, Philip Beauvais.
One thing that Whitfill looks for in any piece of equipment is simplicity of construction. "As much as possible I would like my mechanics to be able to go into their local parts store and not have to rely on the manufacturer for everything. My stations just don’t have the time or days to wait for what should be common items or parts to come from the manufacturer.
"I believe that is the direction the industry has been going in for a while. Usually in any presentation of a piece of equipment, vendors bring up how a certain amount of parts is available locally. This is something that is really important to us as a ground handler."
As Beauvais adds, it may make the difference between choosing one vendor over another.
The need for simplicity is never far from the surface, and not least when it comes to maintenance. "For the last two years, Worldwide Flight Services has been asking for CD-ROM manuals, but many vendors don’t have them available," explains Whitfill. "We would welcome this advance in technology as it would simplify much of what we are doing now.
"It is inevitable that as manufacturers build the new generation of equipment they are going to add more electronics and get more computerized, but there can be overkill," cautions Whitfill. "The question is whether the support is going to be available in the form of computerized documentation and training. Vendors do provide training, but as a ground handler we must be sensitive to the overall cost of sending enough people into a location for training.
"Again we welcome advances that are going to make equipment more reliable. However, we will review the changes and advances to ensure they meet our needs."
Could it be that the manufacturers are moving a little too fast for some sections of their customers? And if so, whose role is it to bring end user and vendor together?
Beauvais agrees that training will be required to work with computers, for computer diagnostics, and for solving maintenance problems. "I know where the vendors are going with this, and it is a great idea," he says. "We just have to ensure the proper training is available as we move forward."
It’s hard not to feel for vendors in many ways. After all, they are constantly looking for solutions to solve such issues. Some, aware of this problem, are beginning to offer equipment maintenance services to help customers manage their assets. Again, a good idea on the surface is met with a degree of caution.
"As yet, we haven’t been approached specifically on anything like that but have heard about it," comments Whitfill. "I think it will really depend on the type of specialized equipment involved. There are certain situations where it might be feasible, but we would have to review each situation separately. We have to make sure there is sufficient control to ensure our customer is going to be happy with the overall service. Interruptions in service are not acceptable."
Worldwide currently buys from a well established supplier list, but leaves the door slightly ajar for others to impress. Whitfill says that Worldwide will continue to move towards single-source vendors, but it is not always that simple. The difficulty, given the environment in which the company operates, is achieving the correct balance.
"With the number of contracts that are being bid and all of the ensuing activity, it quite frankly takes a lot of the GSE industry and the vendors that are out there to support that," believes Whitfill. "I’m not sure that you can just rely on one or two vendors. What happens if your single source vendor’s line falls behind because of a parts supply issue? You are stuck.
"We also have customers that require specific equipment. If this demand falls outside your single-source options, there could be delays or, at minimum, problems."
The fact that Worldwide has to periodically seek other vendors is good news for the smaller players. "I firmly believe that there are definitely niche markets for everyone, large and small," says Whitfill.
What does exist at Worldwide today is a greater will to develop closer relationships with specific key vendors. "Our desire is to expand our ties with those vendors so that we can count on them meeting our needs on a global scale," explains Whitfill.
Some observers suggest that the advent of preferred supplier status may well bring with it a reduction in choice and a weakening of the kind of competitive environment that the ground support business has thrived upon in the past. Other question marks surround whether it will, in time, create a deterioration in service standards.
Well, yes and no, believes Whitfill. "I think the partnerships we have created enhance the service standard that is provided to us. However, a reduction in competitiveness could result in vendors being driven out."
For now, Worldwide’s international operations--in other words, outside the US, Canada and the Caribbean--are largely treated as separate entities in terms of equipment purchasing. There have, however, been steps taken to provide better equipment support to Worldwide’s into-plane fueling operation at Hong Kong International Airport, for example, says Whitfill.
Again, the issue of availability of parts is a key consideration in this thinking. "If we are bringing in equipment from overseas it makes me nervous about parts being available within the U.S. If we are looking at buying a make of vehicle that is coming from, say, Europe our first question concerns how the vendor is supporting its parts supply."
Beauvais agrees: "As far as larger equipment such as loaders and pushback are concerned, we tend to stick with the vendors who have been with us and stood behind their products, but I think that on the lower end of the GSE scale the smaller guys can also profit. They can also provide a service, whether it is regional or local."
Whitfill identifies the used equipment market as a place of profit for the smaller players. "In the new market, we tend to stay with specific vendors, but it is in the used market where the door has opened up to a lot of different vendors and the companies that support them."
Beauvais also suggests that opportunities may arise when the larger equipment manufacturers simply fail to supply equipment quickly enough, as can happen from time to time. "Those who can provide equipment in half the time and at a fraction of the cost will really start to profit," he says. "This could continue as the business grows and these larger manufacturers can’t get the equipment out of the door as fast as they would like."
What all vendors, regardless of size, have cottoned on to is the fact that ground handling organizations such as Worldwide have very different needs to traditional airline customers. It involves the same kind of equipment, of course, but just faster and simpler.
"The main difference is that, contrary to the airlines, we don’t have an engineering evaluation team to go in and make specification changes," points out Whitfill. "From experience we know what we need, and we tend to stay with more generic pieces of equipment which allows us to move it from city to city and region to region.
"We are likely to have that equipment for 10 plus years and it can be in multiple places during that time."
Cross utilization--working on a variety of aircraft in a variety of locations--is the key. One example is in belt loaders, where it doesn’t make any sense for a handler like Worldwide to buy anything other than widebodied belt loaders.
A degree of fleet standardization is also a goal. After all, says Beauvais, " there is only so much you can cross utilize one vendor’s parts."
Whitfill suggests that Worldwide can still improve considerably on how it communicates its needs to suppliers, but concedes that it is stymied to some extent by the fact that it so difficult to actually forecast those needs.
"There is room for improvement and this is something we are trying to do … but we have difficulty in forecasting like an airline. We don’t usually know what contracts we are going to have next year, and even next month. So, the ability to forecast for future purchases is very difficult.
"What we’ve talked about, and I don’t know if it will happen, is to do some planned design and have positions in the vendors’ line so that we have the options on equipment. We can at least go that far. That would help us out with those lead times, and that 30-day response time."
Vendors, it seems, will just have to learn to live with some of the ambiguity that comes from handling customers acutely aware of their own pressures to perform. "We have to be conscious of whether a supplier can always meet a particular need, and so you have to keep the door open a little bit, or at least know your options," admits Whitfill. "So, yes, we are going down this route [preferred suppliers], but I’m not sure how rigid we are going to be exactly."
In the meantime, and like other handlers of its ilk, Worldwide looks set to continue leaning towards generic equipment and the age-old question of cost. It is a fact of life that no ground handler can be competitive if it is paying a fortune for its GSE.
"We are looking for equipment that is going to last, ease of use, and ease of maintenance," says Whitfill. "It goes back to being able to provide our stations with the best that we can. It’s about what vendors can provide us in terms of a package."
Whitfill says he is constantly amazed at the diversity of equipment and ideas that exists in such a small industry like ground support. If in the midst of all that diversity and new technology vendors can continue to "keep it simple," they will surely have an ally in Worldwide Flight Services.