How Ground Handling has Adapted During the Pandemic

Aug. 13, 2020
Ground service providers in Australia and New Zealand have worked to mitigate COVID-19 related risks.

COVID-19 has significantly impacted the aircraft ground handling industry. Ground service providers have had to adapt to a new reality and come up with solutions to continue to safeguard the safety and well-being of employees and passengers.

The threat of COVID-19 in Australia and New Zealand has been overall comparatively low.

“The proactive measures taken by our governments and our relative isolation to the rest of the world has seen the total number of cases remain relatively low and our health care system has been able to manage the more serious cases effectively,” says Alisha Gardner, safety and standards specialist at Swissport Australia. “We have been very fortunate that the fatalities in our country have been very low compared to the rest of the world. Some of our state borders remain closed in an effort to reduce some small clusters and mitigate a second wave of infections.”

Safety Programs

In order to address the risk of infection from COVID-19 in the ramp environment, each of Swissport’s operating stations has a comprehensive COVID-19 safe workplace plan.

“The plan was developed to provide our staff and visitors to our workplaces with controls, aligned to government and health department directives. We want our workforce to feel they can go to work and feel protected,” says Gardner.

Dirk Goovaerts, dnata’s regional chief executive officer for Asia Pacific, affirms that the company’s expert teams have worked around the clock to develop and implement a comprehensive health and safety program, enhancing services, processes and training across the operations.

“dnata has run disinfection programs, introduced new personal protective measures and further improved our cleaning services to safeguard our staff and deliver world-class safety for our airline partners and their passengers,” he says. “In addition to the disinfection of our equipment and facilities, we have supplied our employees with personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks and hand sanitizers. Detailed guidelines on wearing and the safe disposal of PPE have been provided to staff in various roles. Regular safety inspections are conducted by a dedicated team, with team briefings held daily to ensure that all guidelines are understood and followed.”

Derek O’Reilly, general manager of Universal Aviation Australia observes that the threat of spread in Australia was detected early and government authorities were proactive in placing procedures in place for airline operations.

“Most Australian airports of entry employ the same measures when clearing inbound/outbound flights to keep ramp activity for business aviation a sterile environment,” he says. “Most clearances, with the exception of medical flights, are cleared through the main terminals where infrastructure has been put in place to detect potential carriers. This infrastructure does extend to the ramp itself where flights are always met by officials from the Department of Health.”

This procedure has been effective, and it has also shown a strong sense of continuity between all ports where there had been differences before the pandemic, according to O’Reilly.

“In Sydney, specifically, our office is located on the general aviation ramp, operating out of a third-party handler’s facility. As per government regulations, social distancing (1.5m rule) has been employed, hand sanitization and also reduction of staff is in daily effect. The level of customer service remains the same, with differences only in the use of the FBO facilities as they have reduced the passing of passengers and crew through the lounge where possible,” he says.

Managing Risk in the Ramp Environment

Based on Swissport’s risk review and by taking government advice, it appears that the likelihood of transmission is decreased in an open-air environment, particularly when physical distancing and good hygiene practices are observed.

“For the instances when one of the controls is unable to be met, for example: the exchange of verbal communication between workers, the risk remains low due to the relatively short close contact time as well as the open-air environment,” says Gardner. “Our approach is to try to maintain physical distancing as much as possible and we can still achieve this for the majority of the time when operating in the body aircraft. During the loading or unloading when physical distancing cannot be maintained, again the relatively short time is an advantage, and we have also made other PPE available.”

For ground handling companies, it is a sound practice not to differentiate between indoors or outdoors in order not to create a false sense of security whereby people become complacent.

“Inside and outside, we need to be very COVID-19 conscious when entering, touching and protecting ourselves from possible contamination,” says James Nainggolan, Asia Pacific regional safety manager at Universal Aviation.

“Whether they operate in the open air or indoors, we provide the same support to our employees to ensure the highest possible level of safety,” adds Goovaerts. “In addition to supplying our staff with PPE, we regularly disinfect our ground support equipment, use the latest technology and engage our service providers to minimize touchpoints. We also support our airline customers in adapting their operations to the new normal by delivering innovative services for them.”

Plans for Ground Handlers

In Australasia, domestic business has increased slightly with the easing of border restrictions and some sense of normality is beginning. However, it appears it will be some time before business is back to “normal.”

The exemption for international crew from quarantine restrictions has also allowed some traffic to operate, according to O’Reilly.

“Papua New Guinea (PNG), one of the ports we coordinate, has had a much stricter stance on flights with only tech-stops permitted and with multiple layers of government approvals required. This was due to a state of emergency being declared earlier in the year which has not appeared to have eased,” he says. “While technical stops were always a strong part of traffic through PNG, it certainly has reduced business traffic and the multiple layers of approvals do slow down the processes when arranging services.”

dnata has been closely monitoring the pandemic since the outbreak and company officials have been continuously adapting and updating internal measures and business continuity plans as the situation evolves.

“At each location, we work closely with our partners and authorities to ensure the highest safety standards for customers and employees across the operations. dnata Australia has a ‘Pandemic Taskforce’ in place that meets regularly, supported by internal ‘pandemic coordinators’ at various business units to ensure the dissemination of information and enforcement of protective measures,” explains Goovaerts.

Indeed, it is important that ground handlers stay informed and keep the workforce educated, accordingly.

“Locally, operations have been able to identify and separate skill sets to minimize the risk of an infection creating a skills shortage,” says Gardner. “There are resourcing plans in place that allow flexibility, so should restrictions change in any location, we are able to adjust to the requirements. The COVID-19 safe workplace plans continue to be followed and will be updated as information and guidance from the government, health departments and our workplace legislative bodies.”

According to Nainggolan, until there is a vaccine the industry must continue to follow COVID-19 restrictions such as social distancing and hand washing.

“This is the new norm and, until we have a cure, we need to take every precaution to keep ourselves safe and keep our clients safe as well. So, the plan is not to let our guard down,” he says. “The restrictions and procedures that have been put in place have not changed a lot since first introduced. For Australia, we continue to take the threat of spread seriously and these procedures were introduced for the long term. For general aviation, almost every flight will have a different and possibly new challenging component. For ground handlers in this sector, it is always important to be flexible and proactive in making the delivery to clients as seamless as possible.”

The benefit for those who are in the general aviation (GA) sector is that GA does provide an upper hand when having to work outside of the box.

“While the shocking decline in traffic was certainly difficult, it is simply another way we need to meet the customers’ needs, from a new angle,” says Nainggolan. “Ground handlers need to continue to be flexible and inventive in this challenging time and those that may arise in the future.”

Looking to the Future

While it has been in many ways dramatic, the COVID-19 shock has generated a learning experience and it has served as a reminder that we are tightly coupled.

“Things can affect us even if they happen on the other side of the world. By adhering to safety standards and recommendations, we can protect ourselves and the industry from future similar events,” says Nainggolan. “Our most important assets are our team members. By teaching, educating and providing them with a good road map (guidance, standards and procedures) we can be prepared to face similar shocks in the future. In fact, we are prepared already with what we have done so far since the outbreak of the pandemic.”

Indeed, good learning has been accomplished in the area of the education of the risk controls for communicable diseases and their impacts.

“For example, simple practices of good hygiene and social distancing can substantially reduce the infection rate. The other key learning has been the speed of the changes. In the future, similar outbreaks will attract a much faster proactive response from governments and health authorities,” says Gardner.

Ground handling service providers need to step up and look at reinventing the business in preparation for the new “normal.”

“The opportunity lies in timely identifying the new requirements and seeing where we can either adapt or enhance existing services or introducing new services that are complementary,” says Goovaerts. “We have been focused on upskilling our staff during this downtime, with a strong emphasis on e-learning to help us stay agile and build a workforce that can be redeployed internally on a wider scale. The current situation has also enabled the acceleration of technology, where we investigate and implement new procedures supported by automation.”

About the Author

Mario Pierobon

Dr. Mario Pierobon provides solutions in the areas of documentation, training and consulting to organizations operating in safety-sensitive industries. He has conducted a doctoral research project investigating aircraft ground handling safety. He may be reached at [email protected].