Behind the scenes at an airport near you?

Written by: Rob Williams
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Over the years that I have worked within airports, and travelled through many others, I like to look behind the scenes. All airports focus on improving passenger experience, increasing capacity and differentiation, but there are many instances I have either witnessed myself or heard of anecdotally, where this is done without making sure that staff are given adequate consideration. The reasons are numerous, and situations vary, but the consequences are consistent:

  • High staff turnover leading to a lack of skills and knowledge to assist passengers,
  • Health and safety issues causing absences and potential lawsuits, and ultimately, the opposite of what airports and airlines are looking for:
  • Poor customer service.

This has led to lack of proper health and safety equipment, staff sleeping at airports due to unsocial split shift arrangements or staff expected to take all of their breaks at the start or end of shifts.

Who controls working conditions?

Addressing working conditions for staff you directly employ is relatively easy, but can you do the same for those outsourced? Reports have shown that most people directly employed in air transport generally feel well-informed about health and safety in the workplace. However, there are lower satisfaction rates among people employed in support activities with some contractors paying lower wages, offering fewer benefits, and providing employees with inadequate training.

Perhaps this is not your direct responsibility, but it is your passengers who may suffer and remember that "who pays the piper calls the tune". Making sure that contracts have incentives to assist with meeting your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) SLAs and to engage in joint initiatives will ensure that they have the same interests at heart as you. Investing more in worker training and engagement, and making retention and motivation more important, leads to more equitable terms of employment and safer working.

Why should staff help you?

From another perspective, making sure that all staff are part of helping with data gathering and sharing, Business Process and Efficiency projects will also have positive impacts. Staff satisfaction and buy in to lean initiatives is improved if they see that there is a virtuous cycle where workers are expected to be more than just cogs in a machine and remember that if you can't measure it you can't manage it. Here are example questions you need to ask:

Efficiency

  • How much control do you have of your own KPIs if they depend on external companies?
  • Do you have the data to measure accurately?
  • Are contractors and staff fully involved and engaged in efficiency initiatives?

Working conditions

  • How are workers compensated relative to the work they do, where they work and local conditions?
  • Have full workplace hazard assessments been done and are workers prepared for emergencies?
  • Is training adequate timely, professional and appropriate?
  • Are there provisions for staff welfare including for health and stress?
  • Do staff get the management support they need?
  • Is there career opportunity and the ability to grow within the organisation?

Staffing levels and shifts

  • Are there enough staff to avoid unsafe conditions for both workers and passengers and not give associated stress?
  • Are staff expected to rush or conduct simultaneous tasks in order to keep up?
  • Shifts may match the workload, but does it cause issues for staff through constant late changes, unsociable hours, inappropriate breaks and split shifts timings?
  • How do staff get to and from work, especially late at night?

These are the kinds of questions that we help our client airports answer. It's also an area where we can draw on additional insights from colleagues at Egis Airport Operations, responsible for operating 16 airports around the world.

The economics and employment structures for airports and their staff can be challenging. Nevertheless, there are practical steps you can take to make sure that these scenes and these headlines are not applied to your airport."

Rob is a Principal Consultant at Helios and has been working for airlines and airports for over 25 years in Europe, Central America and the Middle East. Rob estimates that he has worked at and/or used over 100 airports worldwide.

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