Out of Africa: An in-depth report of ground handling in South Africa

April 6, 2007
Ground handling is sometimes seen as the “ugly step-child” of the aviation industry.

Ground handling is sometimes seen as the “ugly step-child” of the aviation industry. In the days where most handling companies belonged to an airline, GSE was not the highest of priorities. “Things with wings” enjoyed the main focus of attention and naturally when budget cuts were called for, GSE was in front of the firing line.

Africa, in general, is considered a developing continent when compared to Europe and North America. While this is true of some African countries, there are others which do provide world-class service.

To put things in perspective, OR Tambo International Airport, in Johannesburg South Africa (formerly Johannesburg International Airport) is considered by some to be the largest and busiest airport in South Africa. According to The Airports Company of South Africa, the average number of aircraft movements per day in the 2005-2006 fiscal year was 547, compared to approximately 2,680 movements per day through Hartsfield Atlanta Airport.

Growth in the aviation industry in Africa is on average, forecast at 4.7 percent per annum for the next 20 years. The study also found that
Africa only accounts for 3 percent of world traffic.

According to a Boeing Co. study, RPK’s in Africa will grow by 5.3 percent per annum over the next 20 years. In South Africa the figure is higher, from 20 million passengers in 2001 to an anticipated 40 million in 2010. Expansions currently planned or in progress include:

  • The Airports Company has budgeted $5.2 billion ZAR over the next five years for improvements, expansions and a new airport in Durban, in anticipation of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, increased tourism and A380 aircraft operations.
  • Cape Town will increase it’s current passenger capacity from 6.5 million passengers per year to 12 million by 2009.
  • The new airport in Durban will increase passenger capacity from the current 4 million to 7.5 million by 2010.
  • On completion of improvements to several airports, South African airports will be comparable to any world-class airport.
  • Security is also a priority, with more than $195 million ZAR spent on security matters over the past five years and a further $40 million ZAR earmarked for the current financial year.

The Airports Company has started a five-year investment program in all of South Africa’s major airports. A nearly $32 million Euro loan has been granted to Namibia to upgrade and improve facilities. $41 million USD have been designated for improvements to four of Kenya’s airports. $31 million USD have been set aside for rehabilitation and improvements to Dar es Salaam Airport in Tanzania. Another $500 Million USD are also earmarked for improvements to 16 airports in Angola and Senegal plans to spend $260 million Euros to build a new airport at Dakar-Yoff.

Although not all of Africa’s problems are unique, they nonetheless negatively impact the ground handling industry there. These problems include:
• Operating environment
• Problems with GSE
• Customer support
• Availability of parts
• Inadequate facilities

Compared to European and North American countries, Africa has a unique climate, with hot ambient temperatures, often-dusty conditions and no traditional winters.

A number of African countries are also landlocked which creates a logistical nightmare when shipping GSE to the airports. The surface transport infrastructures are also inadequate in some countries, making it difficult to transport GSE from the nearest seaport to the final destinations.

Another problem in some countries is that of political instability. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, being one such country. Other countries South Africa are making concerted efforts to broker peaceful solutions to their problems but the situation often becomes volatile, making it difficult for the country to develop and move forward. Naturally very few companies want to invest in a country under such conditions.

Unfortunatly, there are some GSE suppliers who fail to provide an acceptable level of after sales service or support for their products. This could be a result of low sales in the region which doesn’t always warranty the costs of implementing a proper after sales service facility. The manufacturer may have a sales agent in the country who is purely involved in sales and not necissarily knowledgeable in the technical or support aspects. It is not cost effective to maintain stocks of spares which may or may not be available in that country and which may or may
not be required or purchased by the end user.

A case in point. Recently, a European GSE manufacturer, who will remain nameless, supplied a number of items to South Africa. This company did not establish a technical support facility there. Some problems occured with the GSE in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. Staff at both airports made numerous phone calls and sent e-mails requesting assistance. Eventually a service rep was sent to Cape Town and repaired the units there. He did not contact or visit Johannesburg and returned directly to Europe, leaving the Johannesburg units unuseable.

Prior to the election of the Democratic Government in 1994, South Africa was subject to many sanctions from various countries. This made it difficult to obtain certain items of GSE, as well as spares. This forced people to become innovative. Parts had to be overhauled or rebuilt and the GSE had to be modified to accommodate “pirate parts.”

Although the situation has improved with the election of the new government, there are still problems obtaining spare parts.

Maintenance facilities especially, are often sub-standard. The importance of adequate maintenance facilities is misunderstood and has not grown in proportion with the airports. With most airport developments the focus has been on the terminals and apron areas. As a result, existing workshops are too small and not fully equipped to handle the increased number of GSE, or in some cases, the new high tech latest generation GSE.

It must also be noted that despite somewhat primitive facilities in select African countries, it is surprising and commendable what is achieved and how maintenance staff manage to keep GSE serviceable.

A hotly debated issue is that of qualifications or requirements for maintenance staff. The article “Where Do We Get Them” by Tony Vasco in the October 2006 issue of GSW sums it up well. Most GSE is reasonably complex and not as simple as a commercial truck or automobile. The operation is an involved combination of electronics, hydraulics and sometimes pneumatics and motive power all working together to enable the item to function safely and effectively. Figuring out how these elements all work together requires more than a technician who has been trained to carry out a 10,000 mile service check on a one-ton pick-up truck. I have heard of a human resource manager who, when asked to employ maintenance staff, suggested it was simple enough to employ a diesel mechanic, an auto electrician and hydraulics fitter. In theory, a reasonable idea but in practice, it didn’t quite work.

Most GSE manufacturers and suppliers do offer basic training courses on the equipment, usually carried out at the time of the commissioning and handing over of the GSE. They assume the technicians assisting or involved are fully trained and qualified and an informal training session is given. Not wanting to appear uneducated many technicians who don’t fully understand the basic principles, won’t ask questions. The number of ground handling companies in Africa are limited, usually to one or two per country, so the number of properly qualified technicians is also limited.


  • GSE manufacturers and suppliers to consider South Africa’s needs and operational requirements.
  • Good cooling systems are a must.
  • Good after sales service. With the relatively low level of skills available in some areas, small problems become major issues and long down times are experienced. Support your GSE.
  • Some African countries do not have the proper facilities or technology to maintain elaborate systems. Where possible, keep designs simple.
  • Bear in mind that although the bottom line is important, there are limited resources available for GSE purchases. Poor economies and unfavorable foreign exchange rates, place a major burden on South African ground handling companies.

In order to benefit all parties concerned, it is necissary to gain a comprehensive understanding of the ground handling problems in Africa. There must be an understanding of the native cultures. Manufacturers must also be prepared to enter into long term relationships with their South African clients.