Successful ground operations are essential to the industry recovery. But the collapse in air travel in 2020–21 resulted in the disappearance of tens of thousands of airport jobs.

Now, as governments remove the COVID-19-related travel restrictions that stifled air traffic, a shortage in experienced ground staff could put the brakes on the industry rebound.

The task is enormous: restoring thousands of ground services jobs and employees without the benefit of the institutional memory of those who have permanently left the industry.

In this environment, the IATA Ground Operations Manual (IGOM)—a standardized and globally accepted framework for safe and efficient ground operations)—is crucial.

 

The IGOM

For over 10 years, the IGOM has been the standard reference for airlines and ground service providers (GSP), its regularly updated guidance proving invaluable in a highly fragmented business sector.

There are hundreds of users worldwide and the adoption rate is good. In a recent survey that generated 200 airlines responses, 133 used or employed companies that used the IGOM.

There is also an online tool, the IGOM Portal, that enables airlines and GSPs to compare their current practices to the latest IGOM provisions. The tool even offers an opportunity for a GSP to access any airline’s variations to the IGOM and a handy notification tool to connect airlines and GSPs.

“The IATA Board of Governors has asked for a global strategy that will see increasing coordination in ground operations,” says Monika Mejstrikova, IATA’s Director of Ground Operations. “We will drive down the number of variations in ground handling practices over the next three years. This will boost the industry recovery as it supports efficiency and training through the harmonization of skills and best practice.”

There is a legacy mindset to overcome. The main reason that some GSPs and airlines don’t adhere to the IGOM is simply that it may suggest a different procedure to one that has become entrenched in a company’s thinking.

“Sometimes they are looking for a competitive advantage or are dealing with a particular safety issue,” adds Mejstrikova. “But they need to know that the IGOM is comprehensive and driven by content. It incorporates different technologies requirements, equipment, and specific circumstances. The IGOM Portal variations drive the future content update and relevancy. We are also planning to adjust the process flow to ensure it fully reflects aircraft turnaround activities.”

A Task Force comprising all relevant stakeholders fields regular meetings and updates the IGOM annually. When airframe composite materials became commonplace, for example, guidance was updated to prevent damage and ensure their correct handling.

 

IATA Safety Audit for Ground Operations

Overlaying the IGOM is the IATA Safety Audit for Ground Operations (ISAGO), which is an industry global standard for the oversight and audit of GSPs. It is an independent assessment of all aspects of managing and providing safe ground handling services.

More than 450 audit reports are available for sharing and the number is increasing all the time. In 2021 alone, nearly 300 audits were conducted. But, as with the IGOM, the aim is to build on an excellent foundation to provide even greater value to the industry.

Like the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA), ISAGO works on a two-year cycle using experienced and trained auditors. It offers different opportunities for every airline, including:

  • Complementary data to risk-based oversight systems on GSPs/stations
  • Reduction of scope/frequency/cost of oversight activities
  • An additional protection layer for risk in ground operations
  • Reduction of scope/frequency/cost for GSPs’ training activities
  • Procurement requirement support during contract negotiations or when seeking a GSP at alternate airports
  • Acceptable means of compliance to a regulatory requirement for oversight of outsourced services.

Audits have largely been done remotely in recent times for obvious reasons, and the lessons learned from this experience will be put to good use. Perhaps the most obvious one is that remote audits can work exceptionally well when assessing documented procedures and their IGOM compliance. Even as travel restrictions are lifted, a desktop documentation assessment can still comprise some 30% of all audits.

Though the IGOM is concerned primarily with below the wing activities and their safe implementation, ISAGO takes a broader look at ground operations, including training (validating compliance to AHM 1100) and safety management systems. Ground support equipment management, load control, and security are also addressed.

Additionally, ISAGO will be incorporated in the IATA ONE Source program. This is an online industry platform for validated aviation capability and infrastructure information. It means airlines will be able to check on GSPs and the exact parameters of their certifications/accreditation scheme.

“But arguably the most meaningful development is that IATA has drastically reduced the cost of ISAGO for airlines to support safety in this critical area even when finances are tight,” says Mejstrikova. “Further discounts are available for airline groups.”

The challenge with ISAGO is to increase awareness and to make it less generic so that airlines can properly benchmark their own ground handling practices. Mejstrikova emphasizes that ISAGO is complementary service and not intended to replace an airline’s own work in this area.

Rather, it is a tool to strengthen and simplify their oversight programs, including an opportunity for cost reduction and refocusing their resources on areas where they need them the most.

“As we all are struggling with skilled staff retention and attraction, we can’t afford to waste our resources on audit fatigue” says Mejstrikova.

Ground operations are still heavily fragmented, but the IGOM and ISAGO offer harmonization and ensure airlines can be confident in the service they will receive.  Moreover, these initiatives assist regulatory authorities. By accepting and/or endorsing ISAGO/IGOM as an accepted standard, they will add a layer of safety while avoiding the financial burden of creating a copy-cat regulatory system.

“ISAGO and the IGOM are just part of IATA’s larger ground handling involvement,” sums up Mejstrikova. “But they are critical to safety and efficiency, particularly in recovery. Training efficiency is another logical gain when procedures are standardized. Training cost gets reduced and common training programs can be globally recognized. The key is to reduce risk and damages and prepare the way for harmonized, sustainable operations.”

The 34th IATA Ground Handling Conference is in Paris, France 31 May – 2 June.

 

Credit | iStock
Top