A Match Made in Dallas

June 20, 2006
ATS pairs up with Delta Airlines in an effort to streamline operations.

Airport Terminal Services, formed in 1975 and the largest privately held ground handling company in North America, has increased its services to more than 30 major airports in the United States and Canada since 1986. Continuing its business philosophy of a diversified customer base, ATS recently expanded its partnership with Delta Airlines to include ramp handling services at Portland International (largest of the three operations,) Phoenix Sky Harbor International and Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport.

Smooth Transitions

For many years, but particularly of late, whether facing bankruptcy or not, airlines have been in a position where they have had to optimize their cost structures and realign themselves for higher performance. This means outsourcing a variety of functions and processes under a term contract to a specialist third party. In addition to achieving cost-savings, other benefits can include quality of service, a strong customer focus and strengthening resources.

With many of the major carriers outsourcing to ground handling companies to trim those costs, build that efficiency and free up resources to concentrate on their core business of moving passengers, it is an understatement to say that it can be extremely difficult to make the transition with managers, employees, daily operations and certainly the overall environment on the ramp. ATS, having just completed its third month handling Delta’s ramp operations in Dallas, is no exception. However, by incorporating a comprehensive transition plan with continual involvement of the ATS senior management throughout both the proposal phase and the implementation phase, Brian Wood, vice president of operations for ATS, claims that the transition can be smooth. “When we are awarded a contract, regardless of whether it starts in 30, 60, or 90 days, we have a transition template that we put into action immediately, which involves every ATS department, including employee services, human relations, safety and training, quality assurance, GSE operation, contract, finance, etc.,” Wood says. As Tony Vaughn, Delta’s DFW station manager states, “From the beginning I was impressed with ATS, particularly, during the final process of awarding the contract. Their team was very well prepared, and I could sense that this group was very knowledgeable and savvy regarding the demands of the industry. I also felt that their core corporate values aligned very well with Delta’s and I could sense a true passion for service, which is a fundamental ingredient for success.

In the case of Delta’s DFW contract, Fred Rivera, who was involved in the negotiation process and had been employed with Delta since 1978, was offered the position of general manager for ATS and was a major factor in the facilitation of the transition process. “The organization and the focus on safety and customer service that ATS brought to the table lead me to make my decision … that if I was going to make a move, this was the time to make it,” Rivera says.

Key dates are set within the first week for each department to target and recruiters go out in the field right away. “The ‘post and pray’ for recruitment doesn’t work anymore in this industry and that’s what our business is about,” Wood says. “Recruitment is the key piece to our entire start-up plan. I tell my managers, if we were a factory, the widget we produce is labor. That’s why we are in existence and we have to work that market so we can go in with an interview team early in the process.”

Perhaps one of the most difficult stages of the transitional process is the actual start date and the first several months thereafter where the new, oft times “green” ramp agents are working side by side with a very senior airlines crew. Even with the changeover there are many Delta employees who worked with the former ramp crew and continue to work for Delta Airlines. ATS remains cognizant of that and is sensitive to the situation. “One of the positive factors at DFW,” Rivera says, “is the fact that Tony and I had previously worked together for many years. We’ve done training seminars together over the years and had a good working relationship coming into this. We wanted our work groups to realize this is a team effort between ATS and Delta.”

Follow the Lead

Service companies, such as ATS, cannot measure and reduce variance as easily as manufacturers can. Service tasks vary depending on the business environment, customer behavior and the person performing the service. ATS develops a minimal threshold that every station manager is expected to maintain in each of the performance areas including accident, injury, safety and baggage measurement, all of the data being tracked electronically. According to Wood, though one of the reasons ATS was successful in getting the Delta contract had to do with their succinct start-up plan, another extremely important reason is the safety management program which puts the emphasis on behavior-based employee safety.

By following leading and lagging indicators, ATS measures their services and controls its variance through internal benchmarking and measurement processes. It is often the lagging indicators that present the ability to confirm a pattern is occurring or about to occur, which are watched closely by traders in the stock market. Wood argues that on the ramp, it is just as important, if not more important, to follow the leading indicators as well. “We are very measurement driven; every company should be. It’s important to be as proactive as possible,” Wood says. “You cannot get to a certain level if you manage strictly by things that have already happened, so we track the leading indicators as well. Steps, that when taken consistently, will put us in a better position to be more organized and increase safety and dependability in the work environment at each station.”

ATS has incorporated a behavior-based initiative fundamental to its safety program that assists with tracking the leading indicators. Using a two-part 4x4 card that conveniently fits in the safety vest pocket called “Way-to-Go” and “Watch-Out,” the program recognizes both positive and negative performance. “Our philosophy on behavior is quite simple: You have to address it when it occurs,” Wood says. “For example, if I see one of my ramp workers not performing a brake-stop and I don’t take the time right away to talk to them and fill out one of the cards, it sets a bad precedent for improving future performance, which may result in an injury or an accident.” Once the card has been filled out and if it’s a “Watch-Out,” the second part is sent to the local trainer who will then set a schedule with the employee for a training review.

However, Wood realizes that being on the ramp is a tough job and everyone deserves a “pat on the back,” so the “Way-to-Go’s” are just as important as the “Watch-Outs” and they don’t necessarily need to be safety-related … it can simply be to recognize initiative. The “Way-to-Go’s” are sent to the corporate headquarters in St. Louis where a $1,000 drawing occurs every month and the winner receives $500, the lead that issued the card receives $300 and the station puts the remaining $200 in a fund (its use to be determined by the entire crew at that station.) “With this program, we have given the [station managers] additional infrastructure to address their leading indicators believing that it’s going to pay for itself by stronger lagging indicators on the backside,” Wood says. “No injuries, accidents, good airline statistics, dependability, baggage handling, recurrent training and 95 percent staff audits.”

Stay Within the Lines

There no doubt has been a significant increase in the opportunities for ground handling companies over the years. An ATS executive group meets quarterly to review a five-year strategic plan to determine which contracts will benefit them. But as Wood puts it, “there are so many opportunities out there; you can get caught up chasing flags on the map … flags that may not be in the best long-term interest of the company.” ATS incorporates a systematic approach to all of its operations. If the bids require purchasing equipment as many did last year, leading to nearly four million in GSE acquisitions, then that is the direction they take. If it requires fuel alternatives, which most are all currently looking at, then they convert more than 100 pieces of motorized equipment to propane. However, most important is labor … and management. As Wood says, “From a management standpoint, we will give you the coloring book and we will give you the crayons…use any color, color any direction you want … just stay within the lines.” Each manager has a very different personality with a separate management style and has to do what works best for him/her. Rivera contends that Wood’s management philosophy allows him to operate as if it were “his shop.” To assist managers with the transitional process, as well as everyday operations and to insure a positive flow of communication, Wood not only insists on managers coming together on a regular basis, but is emphatic that the “best ideas come from the people that are out there doing it.” Regarding the ramp agents, he adds, “You can have the best training in the world, but if you don’t have a worker-friendly environment, they’re not going to stay around.”

“In a new location such as DFW, we had to hire 70 people, knowing that some of them would decide ‘this is not for me’, but you have to develop a core group … it takes time to develop that rhythm,” Wood says. “We knew going into it that there was no way we were going to replace a work crew that has been at it for 25 years, come in and be as good in one day. Can we get there? Absolutely, we are confident of that.” Every airline has different requirements and much can change according to the size of the operation as well. It may be the hope of some that standardization in certain basic training procedures, such as hand signals, will become the norm. Until then, according to Wood, “One of the things a service company has to be is very adaptive … there is no ‘cookie-cutter’ approach.”