Bhadra International India Ltd. is playing a major role in bringing world-class security and quality to ground handling services at India’s international airports.
“Bhadra stands committed to provide the most professionally competent ground handling services by employing the most highly skilled staff and supplying ground support for our customer airlines that is efficient, safe and always on-time,” says Prem Bajaj, the company’s chairman.
Bhadra has bagged 15-year contracts for ground handling and cargo and even general aviation services with airlines at seven airports in Chennai, Kolkata, Calicut, Coimbatore, Trivandrum, Trichy and Mangalore.
The New Delhi-based company employs more than 2,500 trained, full-time workers and invested in $75 million worth of brand-new GSE stationed at its airports with much of the equipment powered by rechargeable batteries.
Before any aircraft arrive, the company holds a roll call to review everyone’s duties and schedules for the day ahead. Afterward, operators move to their respective vehicles and position them at the ready. At its Chennai facility, staff at a control room will be able to monitor and allocate GSE throughout the day thanks to onboard microchips that pinpoint locations. Uniformed ramp agents stand in line to prepare for the plane with military precision.
The Indian aviation market could use this precision. Here's what the headlines tell: Strikes. No paychecks for months. Pilots who call in “sick.” Past due bills. Bankruptcy. Government bailouts. Even COD for fuel delivery.
But it’s been a mess on the ground for much longer. Until recently, the airlines primarily “self handled” ground handling. That doesn’t mean they hired and trained their own crews. Most hired operators who did not comply with International Air Transport Association’s standards and would be more accurately described as what we’d refer to as “Manpower” companies. That meant temporary contracts with multiple agencies with one offering drivers and another offering baggage handlers and still another offering cleaners, but no one company offering a complete package.
While the routine was cost-effective to the airlines, “cost-effective” in this case meant falling far short of safety and security measures.
“Most airlines operating at our airports had resorted to cutting corners and outsourcing the work to fly-by-night operators who used absolutely untrained, part-time workers using outdated equipment,” Bajaj explains.
Since most operators were essentially in the manual labor business, they had little need to invest in expensive GSE. As a result, farm tractors were a common site on the apron. If operators did invest in GSE, they often purchased too much of one product due to the lack of centralized management and coordination. Mumbai Airport, for example, had more than three times the number of GPUs necessary for an airport its size.
Most importantly, however, this patchwork of temporary ground workers created a security nightmare for Indian airports. There was no way to effectively monitor personnel who had full access to a terminal to say nothing of the apron, hanger, cargo and aircraft.
Modernizing Indian ground handling would require millions of investment dollars, which the cash-strapped airlines did not have.
As a result, the government ultimately dictated that only Air India (a state-owned airline), its subsidiary Air India SATS Airports Services Private Ltd. – a joint venture between the airline and ground handler SATS – and Bhadra could carry out ground handling activities of foreign airlines at the country’s airports.
An entrepreneur, Bajaj anticipated the need for changes in India’s civil aviation infrastructure. As the government announced in 2007 its plans to update national ground handling standard, Bajaj partnered with Novia, a well-established 50-year-old Danish ground handler for technical and administrative support.
His staff undergoes a detailed and thorough selection training procedure before even being hired, and then attends step-by-step training according to specific roles and responsibilities once on board. Regular personal appraisals and incentive pay plans – something Bajaj says is not common to Indian business – ensure that dedicated and motivated workers produce their very best.
Bajaj kept reiterating the term “bona-fide” to us to describe his 2,500 employees. What he meant was that his “full-time” crew was available all the time as needed and not at the whim of temporary contracts.
“This is truly a new work culture for us,” Bajaj adds. “We need to generate a professional approach among everyone to meet the expectations of airline customers and provide total satisfaction.”
Take, for example, Bhadra’s approach to its safety management system. A dedicated officer oversees safety and undertakes internal audits every three months. In addition, external audits are done by airline customers every six months to access performance levels. Feedback from these audits is then implemented at various levels of company operations.
“This has resulted in maintaining high standards of safety and on-time performance at all seven airports in our network,” Bajaj adds.
The company is also in the process of implementing the IATA’s Safety Audit for Ground Operations to further boost its SMS efforts.
Bajaj has also invested in technology with what it calls “BhadraTech,” essentially an online system that keeps better track of cargo and equipment, plus makes many administrative duties such human resources and billing that much easier.
Bajaj is a staunch supporter of the Indian government’s “go green” policies. He is determined to work on eliminating the deadly presence of the pollution in the ground handling areas of airports.
“Many workers suffer from lung diseases because of that,” he explains. “I am working for the day when the majority of ground handling equipment will be eco-friendly.”
Bhadra has the latest GSE at all its airports. His GSE fleet includes brand-new equipment such as Schopf pushbacks; Hitzinger GPUs; Rheinemetal air starts; TLD conveyors and auto steps; Hydro towbars; Trepel cargo loaders and transporters; and Trepel tugs.
To give you some sense of scale for this large GSE investment, here’s the inventory at Chennai Airport:
- Fifteen passenger coaches.
- Fifteen pushbacks.
- Twenty step ladders.
- Fifteen conveyors.
- Fifteen main deck loaders for wide-body aircraft, eight low deck loaders for narrow-body aircraft.
- Forty-five tow bars.
- Ten GPUs.
- Fifteen cargo transporters.
- Seventy-five battery-operated tugs and tractors.
His eGSE fleet fits in well with his mission to protect his employees’ lung, but he also adds that the noiseless electric equipment also protects his employees’ hearing, too.
Despite current economic woes, India is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies averaging an annual GDP growth rate of almost 6 percent over the past 20 years. Indian GDP is expected to grow at an average annualized rate of 8 percent during the next 40 years.
And while farm tractors are still found on many aprons, the future also looks better for India’s aviation market. One aspect of India’s economic strength comes from the sheer number of its 1.2 billion citizens.
“If India’s people traveled at the same frequency as in the United States, a market of 2.1 billion travelers would be created,” said Tony Tyler, IATA’s director general and CEO in a keynote address delivered at the India Aviation 2012 Conference last March. “Even one-third of that would be an air travel market of about 700 million rivaling that of the United States.
In addition, the Airports Council International announced at the same conference the country could emerge as the third largest aviation market by 2029. India improved its ranking from 101st place in 2007 to 12th place in 2010 in terms of airport maintenance, traffic handling and passenger facilities.
For Bhadra’s part, Bajaj says that the government’s new ground handling policy covers some 40 airports throughout the country. And while he doesn’t have a monopoly on the business, his inclusion in the government’s initial ground handling plan of sanctioned vendors does put him in an advantageous spot to earn more business from what industry analysts estimate to be a $540 million market.