Finding New Solutions

Sept. 19, 2008
In the fast-paced, ever-changing environment of new state-of-the-art airport terminals, VT Airside Solutions lives up to its name.

In 2005, British Airway’s (BA) Terminal 5 (T5) was the largest construction project in Europe and is now the largest single-span building in Britain. Taking a total of six years to build, T5 covers 50 football fields, has 11 miles of baggage conveyor belt systems, operates 60 gates and boasts a 35-million-passenger capability, taking Heathrow’s capacity to nearly 90 million passengers a year.

A Lot to Handle
Handling millions of passengers a year requires the provision of a cost-effective, efficient and comprehensive scope of critical services; this has presented significant challenges for VT Critical Services airside business (VT), now in its sixth year of a 10-year full-risk service contract with BA. “Terminal 5 will transform the flying experience for the millions of British Airways’ customers who pass through Heathrow each year,” Gordon Reynolds, VT airside director, says. “The new experience will be faster, smoother and simpler. Ground support services will play a crucial role in ensuring we take full advantage of our new surroundings and ensure the smooth running of the operation.”

Open for only six months, T5 has presented ground support equipment with a new set of technological and efficiency challenges for BA. VT is meeting these challenges by taking a fresh approach to every piece of equipment through extensive research and design in performance and environmental impact, while obtaining optimal financial value.

The Proper Pedigree
VT’s airside business, which operates out of Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, is a subsidiary of VT Group plc under a subdivision titled Critical Services. The VT Group turns over roughly $1.7 billion (1 billion) per year and — employing 15,000 people globally, with 373 based at Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester — 80 percent of the operations are aligned with British Airways. Like many airlines, BA has been outsourcing the GSE maintenance operations for more than a decade, but the fundamentals of the full-risk transfer contract with VT guarantees a fixed price for the maintenance of all equipment, other than inflation, and constant consultation and evaluation through value-added solutions. “It’s a self-sufficient system … we cover a broad spectrum … we do the cradle to grave,” Reynolds says. VT is contracted with BA across all three airports to organize, coordinate and manage their entire ground fleet so they have the equipment they require when they require it.

Previously, BA outsourced to a company that was perceived only as a maintenance company. “There’s a lot of companies that do ground handling maintenance, but it’s the pricing and added-value package combined that’s important,” Steve Cobbold, head of engineering says. “Though we have a 10-year contract, we provide BA with a 20-year maintenance matrix to accommodate all lifecycles and future cost visibility.”

The bedrock principle in partnering with VT was bringing “sufficient pedigree” to the table to assist BA with reaching optimal ground support operations by providing the necessary tools. “Culturally, the airport is very difficult to change,” Reynolds says. “We are contributors in helping BA chip away at what is a much embedded culture. We don’t change their culture; we simply give them more tools and ammunition to change it themselves.”

How the Brits Manage Their “Kit” (equipment)
BA’s operation is so complex that it would never easily facilitate going to a single supplier for the 3,500 hundred “bits of kit” it owns. However, when VT initially partnered with BA they had more than 85 GSE suppliers on their list; that same list has been cut in half and is still shrinking. “We basically tried to identify everyone around the world who is a potential supplier and we got in touch with 250 companies through a very comprehensive survey,” Cobbold says. “We did the research on the types of equipment the company could produce compared to the criteria BA wanted fulfilled and filtered it down to about 40 companies.”

BA is an immense organization that has to maintain very rigid protocols. One of the tools VT uses, which is supplied by BA, is an electronic auction facility. VT is holding electronic auctions (e-auctions) for every piece of BA kit more than $178,000 (£100,000) as an impartial way to do business and get the best price on a commodity purchase. The e-auction is a virtual interface where competing companies log on and place blind bids against one another, with the ability to see only their ranking, not their price. But according to Reynolds, “Price is not the deciding factor … what the e-auction gets us is the best price.

There are a number of other factors in terms of operation, suitability, availability, quality of product, lead times, support packages that are offered … all of these things factor in.”

Another cultural change BA has incorporated is the purchase of more standard equipment with fewer bells and whistles on it, thus shrinking the specifications as well as the maintenance on miscellaneous and inconsequential broken gadgets.

Complete Asset Management
Airports in general are notorious for “losing” ground support equipment and Heathrow is considered one of the most difficult airports when it comes to congestion on the tarmac. As a full-service company, VT not only specs, procures and manages the maintenance of the entire ground fleet for BA, they also bring their own initiatives to the process. The latest of new technologies they have been rolling out across BA’s fleet is a sophisticated telematic management report system, which identifies where each piece of equipment is located, if it’s in use, if it is being used effectively and if it needs maintenance. “We’ve got 3,500 pieces of kit that we are looking after … not to mention the 3,000 trailers we subcontract,” Cobbold says. “We put this device on the more critical items, which helps them find the thing, but we’ve also got this fairly sophisticated management support sweep behind it that helps employees identify when they are using it, why they are using it or are they just wasting their time?”

Another aspect of this initiative is a mobile facility. A part of VT’s service level agreement is a 15-minute window for repair, should a piece of GSE needed for a scheduled departure break down … and if they fail, BA gets reimbursed. As the expression goes, business is about the bottom dollar, so 18 months ago, VT pioneered a live mobile tracking project which consists of vans equipped with technology that tracks equipment engaged with the aircraft. The program continues to be a “work in progress.” Beyond tracking equipment location, technology is being developed to determine what equipment needs refueling.

Cobbold’s engineer team is working with the telematics company to find an interface that will allow BA to see the fuel gauge of every vehicle from the central office, providing the information necessary to go directly to the point of need.

Green Turns to Diamond
With the assistance of VT, BA recently achieved the highest ranking of a five-tier assessment structure from bronze to diamond, in the BAA Heathrow Clean Vehicles Program — a program that monitors everything from vehicle maintenance to cost-effective fleet optimization and use of telematics that are independently reviewed by a transport consultant. The Clean Vehicles Program aims to reduce transport costs, including fuel and maintenance while reducing the environmental impact of vehicle fleets. The telematic equipment being fitted to all aircraft tractors will allow the condition of the engines to be remotely monitored and older vehicles have been retrofitted with catalytic converters to reduce pollution.

VT recognizes there are many opportunities to export the “cradle to grave” model to North America and has been making significant investments in doing just that. “From a technical and practical point of view, we have a fairly unique system that’s Internet-based and gives visibility that can be seen worldwide,” Reynolds declares. “We can get on the computer at a moments notice to see what’s available in Gatwick … in which particular department … whether it’s loading baggage or whether it has to do with logistics … the telematic system plays quite an integral role.”