Handling with care

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By UDAYAN NAG

Headquartered in Switzerland, Swissport International Ltd. operates in more than 300 airports, and earlier this year the company’s global presence increased to 50 countries. They provided ground services to 250 million passengers and handled 4.7 million tonnes of cargo for 850 companies in 2017.

Swissport was also one of the major participants at the 2018 IATA Ground Handling Conference (IGHC) held in Doha. “We attend a lot of these conferences every year and one which we have always prioritised is the IGHC conference,” says the company’s Chief Commercial Officer, Nils Pries Knudsen, adding: “We have one of our prized customers Qatar Airways (QA) here, with whom we work very closely.

With regard to the latest developments concerning the aviation industry, Knudsen says that there are many things on the agenda right now, and quite a few changes and updates are being planned in the regulatory schemes, i.e., the way business is contracted between airlines and ground handlers.
“This is an ongoing discussion which usually takes place in the IATA (International Air Transport Association) network, where Swissport is also a very active player. The other element which is becoming more and more evident is the need to reduce our dependence on labour. So, whether we talk ground handling, passenger services like check-in, etc., or cargo warehouses, the common factor for all those businesses is that they are labour-intensive. This is an aspect where we will need to spend a lot of time and energy because it is becoming more and more difficult for us to attract manpower.”

Providing details about Swissport’s association with Qatar Airways, Knudsen says that even though the Hamad International Airport in Doha is not an airport where Swissport can operate in, they served QA in many other airports around the world. “We are the single largest supplier of ground services for Qatar Airways outside Doha. The reason for that is that we have a set way of working with them. So it’s quite easy for us to start a new business with Qatar Airways, or if QA starts a new route and we are present, we already have a way to work together and it becomes easy for us to start operations.”

Nils Pries Knudsen, CCO, Swissport International Ltd

Unfortunately, Swissport wasn’t in the news for the right reasons earlier this year. There were lengthy delays for passengers of Sunwing Airlines in Canada, for some the ordeal lasted for as long as five days. Swissport apologised and even acknowledged that about 80 staff members did not show up for work during that particular weekend because of inclement weather. The company, along with Aviapartner and Menzies Aviation, was also involved in protests against heavy workloads and salary issues at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Apart from that, Swissport’s planned initial public offering (IPO) deal with Chinese conglomerate HNA also did not work out.

Commenting on the Sunwing incident, Knudsen says: “We are in a business where we have around 70,000 people working globally for us. We cannot say we are flawless. There will always be untoward incidents. It’s part of life. However, when a mistake happens, the recovery service is the most important thing. We recently did a survey and it was clear that the customers who had an unsavoury experience were more satisfied than those who did not.”

Explaining the unrest at Schiphol Airport, “union pressure”, according to Knudsen, leads to the aforementioned situations. “Sometimes unions, which are quite strong in Europe and North America, exaggerate a certain matter in order to get their agenda across. From time to time we have to deal with that. But obviously since there are so many people engaged, we need to manage our relationships amicably.”

As far as the IPO with Chinese conglomerate HNA is concerned, Knudsen says that it’s still on the table. “It was something that our owners HNA wanted to pursue; a stock market listing in Zurich made the decision last year. Then there was a process which was followed at the end of which it was decided that the market conditions were not conducive enough at the end of last year, so they did not want to go through with it and deferred it. It might still happen.”

In March, Swissport concluded the acquisition of Aerocare, the leading aviation services and airport infrastructure services provider in Australia and New Zealand and its subsidiaries Skycare, Carbridge and EasyCart from Archer Capital and the Aerocare management. The move meant that the company’s global presence increased to 315 airports in 50 countries.
And finally, regarding the company’s ambitions for the rest of the region, Knudsen says: “We started our operations in Oman two years ago, which has proven to be successful and we are hoping to see it grow further. This is a good model to analyse all the neighbouring countries within the region to see if we can make things happen. But it all depends on whether there’s enough business for a second handler, which might not be the case if the airports are too close to each other. So, we have to investigate and be sure that if we make a move, there’s actually going to be good business.”