Unifi Aviation’s path to becoming an independent ground handler began in 2019. And in a short time, leadership at Unifi has been able to establish a new company culture and build on its foundation.
By implementing new technologies, Unifi is enabling its frontline employees to provide a full suite of ground services across the United States, including ramp services, passenger handling, maintenance services, ticketing and more.
In recognition of these achievements, Unifi Aviation has been named the 2023 Ground Support Worldwide Service Leader of the Year.
“Unifi was created largely because of the divestiture of Delta Global Services (DGS) in 2019,” explains Unifi CEO Gautam Thakkar, who joined the company in 2021. “They had a deal with a company called Argenbright Capital, where they sold 51 percent of their stake to Argenbright.”
Argenbright shepherded the company’s transition from subsidiary to independent handler and began rebranding in 2020. Following the transition, Unifi began building its current business on top of the foundation established by DGS.
“We’ve pretty much doubled our growth. We are over $1 billion in revenue. We’ve got almost 210 stations that we operate in and 23,000 employees across the country, so it’s a good footprint across all the possible service lines,” Thakkar says.
Having an existing presence in key locations, including New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), has allowed Unifi to offer full ground handling services – both above and below the wing.
“Just because of the scale that we had – and the presence and the footprint that we had – our ability to provide adjacent services in airports that we were already present went up dramatically,” he adds. “Our presence in those locations gives us the ability to expand our services and expand our footprint.”
While exponential growth has been a goal for Unifi, company officials note the appropriate infrastructure needs to be in place to facilitate that growth.
“We didn’t want to build an architecture or infrastructure, where I need to build huge data centers and employ more resources to manage that,” says Sandeep Angra, chief information officer and chief technology officer at Unifi.
“We had to build our systems and IT infrastructure in such a way that it’s scalable because we continue to grow the business every day,” Angra says. “So how do you integrate all of that quicker, faster and smarter? We had to think through all that.”
To that end, Unifi has focused on cloud-based and software-as-a-service (Saas) solutions while implementing new technology aimed at improving human resources processes, employee engagement and frontline operations and training.
With more than 200 stations across the U.S., individual locations previously used an array of hiring processes to onboard new employees. To combat challenges and to improve visibility at the corporate level, last year Unifi launched a fully automated application tracking system called Avature.
“Now across the network, at any given point in time, we want 100 percent of our stations on Avature, which gives us complete line of sight in terms of the hiring pipeline,” Thakkar says.
By automating the hiring process, Avature offers several advantages to Unifi. Job boards can be digitized, prospective employees can self-schedule badging times with the airport, offer letters can be issued quickly and background/drug screenings can begin immediately after job offers are extended.
“The entire process is so seamless. There are very little touchpoints, other than interviewing the person as we need to,” Thakkar says. “There are so many aspects of moving from a manual, disaggregated environment to a complete automated, aggregated environment that the benefit is, in my opinion, a lot.”
The ability to scale this technology is important. Thakkar notes having the right people in place and utilizing the appropriate technology will allow the business to grow.
“For example, if you have a new location coming up, typically you would need to put the job on the job board and start processing the applications. Now it’s all on Avature. We just need to post the ad in that particular location or city, and it now automatically gets routed in,” Thakkar says, noting nearly 20 start-ups have taken place in recent months and all have gone smoothly thanks to Unifi’s start-up team and the support provided by technology.
“It simplifies the whole process, and it allows us to scale the business.”
Recruiting and onboarding employees is key to supporting growing operations. But once employees have joined the team, connecting with frontline employees is key for corporate management, Thakkar explains.
Using a mobile app called WorkJam, Unifi is able to foster the employee engagement required to improve morale and reduce attrition.
“The initial thought process was communication,” Thakkar says. “If somebody from the frontline wants to reach out to me, what is their mechanism for reaching out to me?
“I think that was the genesis of the idea.”
When he first joined Unifi, Thakkar would ask frontline employees what information they wanted at their fingertips. The common responses included access to pay and related salary information as well as using paid time off and managing shifts.
“All of that, we essentially automated,” Thakkar says
“We have almost a 60 percent adoption rate for WorkJam,” he continues. “The ease with which they can access information is important. That improves their experience of working with us, and we believe that if we can take that experience out of the hands of the managers and supervisors – basic information – and pass it to the frontline employees, themselves, it just gives them a better way of actually managing their time.”
Because each market where Unifi is present has different hourly contracts, WorkJam allows corporate management to centralize this information and ensure accuracy when issuing paychecks.
“Frontline employees depend a lot on their weekly or biweekly paychecks. We wanted to rein all that in so that we had control, and we wanted to make sure there were zero errors,” Thakkar says.
He adds that migrating from manual processes to WorkJam has been a huge transformation for an organization the size of Unifi.
“I commend the HR and the technology teams and the operators for adopting it because it was something that was very much needed in the field,” Thakkar says. “Their ability to take that and put it to use so that it creates a very streamlined process, I think, is wonderful to see.”
WorkJam officials have continued to work with Unifi to add additional functionalities and ensure new features fit the company’s needs. For example, WorkJam implemented a feature that allows employees to receive fractional pay prior to established pay days. Unifi has also worked with WorkJam to pilot a function that allows employees to swap shifts with one another.
“There are different things that we’re trying,” Thakkar says. “The idea and the sole purpose is to have easy access to information so you can do your job better and improve your employee experience for the time you’re spending with us.”
Unifi has also enhanced safety by implementing a predictive data modeling program in collaboration with Microsoft and Artis Consulting.
The system offers two phases which allows operation managers to predict what might happen and offer solutions to avoid problems.
The predictive component of the data model analyzes risks associated with organization safety, aircraft ground damage and employee injuries. The prescriptive component provides solutions to prevent risk.
“We’ve started as prescriptive and now it’s become predictive. Our model seems to be improving over a period of time,” Thakkar says. “It keeps rewriting itself twice a week, so the model is improved.
“Moving from a prescriptive to a predictive model, from trying to figure out what happened last week to actually doing the root cause that’s telling you this might happen this week – I think it’s a huge shift from our perspective,” he adds.
After piloting the artificial intelligence solution, Unifi is now rolling it out to other stations across the country.
“The reception and the people who have started using it, it’s been great feedback for us,” Thakkar says. “Now it’s about increasing adoption and making sure people are actually using it, so that our customers can see the value in it as well.”
The data modeling system is able to identify patterns and learn from them. The system has access to 30 data points and 500 individual variables, which allows it to recognize potential risk and other issues more effectively than humans.
Capturing that information gives Unifi tremendous insight into what might happen, Thakkar explains.
“The model from the base case has improved dramatically and it keeps improving to the point where, if there is an incident of a worker injury or aircraft damage that has happened, there’s a 99 percent chance that if we had the tool in place, we would have caught it,” he says.
While technology has enabled Unifi to achieve several recent successes, Thakkar also credits the people who have been tasked with leading the company’s transformation.
“If you take a look at the leadership team that we have, I think that’s a very important reason that we’ve been able to grow the business, scale the business,” Thakkar says. “It’s a very diverse group of individuals with very diverse backgrounds.
“If you look at the people who are in the respective roles, I think they are probably the best in the industry in terms of what they do, which helps provide the kind of guidance that we need.”
According to Thakkar, culture has been an important element of Unifi’s journey. He says company leaders wanted to establish a culture that was more service-oriented. That culture is established at the top.
“We may be corporate, but we are essentially working for the frontline employees – not the other way around,” Thakkar says, adding Unifi’s goal is to improve the experience of its employees. “We are trying to do whatever we can to make sure that they are having a great experience working with us.”