Blue Skies Ahead

June 25, 2007
When JetBlue decided to enter the Chicago market,the airline needed a ground handling company with experience. JetBlue and Servisair battled the cold Midwest winter and are now looking forward to a smooth ride together

Since its inaugural flight more than seven years ago, JetBlue has grown quickly, adding destinations regularly and expanding its fleet immensely. With its hub at John F. Kennedy Airport, it was natural that many of its business passengers would name Chicago’s O’Hare Airport as a desirable destination.

However, adding O’Hare to its roster was no small challenge. With no available gates the airline had no choice but to wait patiently.

“When we were waiting for gate space at O’Hare, we were fortunate in the sense that the America West and US Airways merger came about,” explains Paul Birkenfeld, general manager for JetBlue. “There is only one common use gate at the airport and America West had been occupying it, but with the merger we were able to make the application for the slot. There was a lot of talk as to how many slots we wanted because they are really hard to get in Chicago right now.”

The airline decided to begin its tenure at O’Hare with a New York-Chicago route and a Chicago-Long Beach trip as well.

“Both of those [routes] have a lot of competition,” says Birkenfeld of JetBlue’s head to head challenge with legacy carriers United, American and Delta.

To hit the ground running, JetBlue needed a ground support team who knew the ropes of one of the busiest airports in the world. A Request for Proposal (RFP) was sent out and of the four companies solicited, Servisair appeared the most attractive with more than 30 years of experience at O’Hare.

“They were not the lowest bidder,” says Birkenfeld. “But we had a little more confidence in Servisair because they were already established at O’Hare and they had the facilities we were going to need. We’ve had some experience with them in other cities as well. Servisair also had the warehousing capabilities which, as a start-up station, were important to us.”

According to Eric Wetzel, general manager for Servisair in Chicago, with the decades of experience his company possesses, it is becoming more and more difficult for it to stay competitive in costs.

“Our costs have increased because we have a seasoned workforce,” he explains. “We’re not as competitive as someone that’s brand new with little overhead. We’ve been doing this for 30 years.”

To combat the company’s increasing costs, Servisair had recently decided to re-evaluate some of its contracts with international passenger carriers and eventually gave termination notices to several carriers at O’Hare’s Terminal 5.

“It’s really about dollars and cents,” Wetzel says. “After 9/11 and the SARS epidemic there were price roll backs to a lot of our customers and now with increasing fuel costs we have not been able to recover those dollars. Those airlines were not willing or able to give their ground handlers an increase so we terminated the contracts.”

Wetzel says the actions the company took at Terminal 5 were an isolated event. “We’re not going to take business just to get bigger,” he says. “We have a business model we stick to and we are only going to take business that makes sense to us.”

Apparently JetBlue made a lot of sense for the company.

“Terminal 2, where JetBlue is located, is a much different operation,” he explains. “It’s easier work than turning a wide body. It’s a little less complex and less equipment-driven. We would love to see more ground handling contracts like this.”

Servisair is currently responsible for baggage handling, aircraft servicing, water and lav, overnight flight cleaning and mail pick-up and delivery for JetBlue for a one-year period. Their relationship began in January, one of the coldest and most bitter months in the Windy City.

“We had some very late nights in the beginning,” says Wetzel. “We should have been wrapped up by 11:30 p.m. or midnight, but there were many nights where we were hitting 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning before our night shift was getting out of there.”

Both Servisair and JetBlue cited the unforgiving winter weather as a main cause for the delays. Unfortunately for JetBlue, the winter of 2007 will be one it won’t soon forget and neither will its customers. The airline was notoriously chastised for its handling of a February storm at JFK which forced planes to remain grounded with full loads of passengers for several hours.

The delays had a rippling effect on JetBlue flights around the country. However, the airline has since produced a Passenger Bill of Rights, the first airline to take such an action as a result of the 2007 storms. The first month of handling JetBlue was a learning experience for Servisair as well.

“Their irregularity obviously drives our ramp employees to have an irregular schedule,” Wetzel says. “They also only have one gate here so that affected us too. Sometimes they would have one aircraft at the gate and then another waiting, so our crews were working one right after another — and that’s fine, that’s what we were hired to do — it just gets a little taxing on our employees.”

“There’s always a learning curve,” explains Birkenfeld. “There were some bumps in the road getting used to a new team — we had new people both on our side as well as theirs. So we had a few issues with meeting our time goals but after the 30-day mark they really started to get their momentum building and have been quite on track since then.”

Ground handling in the dead of winter at O’Hare also presents its own unique challenges. With tight ramp space, deicing a plane becomes a well choreographed dance. Moving vital equipment while properly spraying the plane can be tedious. Although, according to Wetzel, sometimes it’s the snow itself that presents the biggest challenge in Chicago.

“If you have a light powdery snow it doesn’t take too much time or fluid to clean it off the aircraft, but when you start getting the really wet heavy snow then you have to use much more glycol, and it takes more time, more manpower and slows down the rotation,” Wetzel explains. “You also spend more time going back and filling up the truck … it really snowballs.”

Given Servisair’s experience in Chicago, winter weather presents little the team can’t handle. A joint venture company, Servisair Snow Lift, is responsible for removing a third of the snow from the ramps at O’Hare and all snow on non-movement areas at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Servisair has also been solicited by a glycol recovery company to explore recycling options but as of yet, nothing has materialized in that department.

According to Wetzel, Servisair uses exclusively FMC Tempest deicers in an effort to standardize its GSE fleet and eliminate additional expenses. “FMC provides training for our mechanics and we provide the training for the operators,” Wetzel says. “We have recurrent training every year; we do class room as well as field training on the equipment.”

Wetzel says finding and retaining quality employees can be a great challenge in the ground handling business, especially when it comes to entrusting them with expensive equipment. Wetzel cited a recent deicing accident in Detroit with another ground handling company, where an 18-year-old employee flipped a deicing rig while drinking on the job, as an industry-wide concern.

“If you’re a brand new employee we’re not going to put you on a deicer,” Wetzel explains. “Our more senior employees are doing that. People who have been trained and have a couple years experience … it can be a very dangerous operation if you’re not aware of what you’re doing at all times. If somebody’s not paying attention for a split second it can change lives forever.”

With the winter behind them and lessons learned on both sides, JetBlue and Servisair are pleased with their partnership thus far.

“We are holding on tight to our slots and have no plans to exit the market,” Birkenfeld says. “This has been a very successful relationship.”

“JetBlue treats us as a partner, not just a vendor,” Wetzel explains. “We are both in a partnership to provide a service to customers. We work together to support each other, because it can be a crazy business.”