Taking flight: Advancing operational resilience in aviation

By Mark Elliott


In the summer of 2022, half of all flights across Europe were delayed and almost 2,000 were cancelled every day. The mayhem of cancellations and delays was intensified by long queues, staff shortages, increasing costs, travel restrictions lifting, and strikes. The frustrations felt by passengers during were far-reaching. 

In the months that followed, we worked closely with the UK Government’s Department for Transport to complete a review of the ground handling industry, assessing what went wrong and how the Government could best respond. We analysed how challenges with servicing aircraft, passengers, and bags on the ground – services collectively known as ’ground handling’ – contributed to delays and cancellations in 2022.

The report on our findings, published in March 2023, identifies the challenges facing the aviation sector and sets out 10 areas for the industry to focus on to avoid a repeat of the disruption. The Government’s recommendations centre on three core themes:

  1. Improving recruitment and retention
  2. Making collaboration more effective
  3. Clarifying and enhancing performance standards

Addressing these three core themes are just some of the ways the aviation industry can look to deliver and embed a resilience mindset to mitigate against future disruptive trends and events. Our recent research on transport resilience confirmed that this ‘always-on’ resilience mindset is already gathering momentum with 67 percent of aviation leaders rating their organisational resilience as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ having improved over the last three years – the highest amongst other transport mode sectors.

While the recent cancellation of 1,700 easyJet flights at Gatwick over the peak summer 2023 period might be seen as an early sign of a return to the previous ‘summer of chaos’, the decision in fact appears to be a pre-emptive move to rebook passengers and avoid last minute cancellations due to restricted European airspace and the threat of air traffic control and ground handler strikes. Here is therefore one example of airline management proactively mitigating risk but there is still a huge opportunity to do things better.

We’ve taken the three core themes identified in the Government’s recommendations to the aviation sector and provided actionable insight as to how to unlock opportunities – not just to help embed always-on resilience but to accelerate areas of growth.

1. Improving recruitment and retention

The first challenge lay in the recruitment and retention of people with the right skills. While ground handling wages are not significantly different to those of comparable roles – such as drivers in logistics and waiters in hospitality – working conditions can often be more challenging. In response, most, if not all, ground handling agents have significantly raised wages, some by as much as 28 percent year on year. The industry also faced the practical problem of long processing times for airport ID passes. This caused a considerable bottleneck in the recruitment process, becoming a major challenge to restaffing. The situation has improved, however, as many airports have bolstered teams who vet applicants.

2. Making collaboration more effective

We also found a need to develop better collaboration between all those involved in serving passengers. While there are established forums for collaboration within the aviation industry, these are not always effective at encouraging airlines, airports, and ground handling agents to share information and best practice. Our research also showed that almost one-third (30 percent) of transport leaders say lack of collaboration across relevant parts of the ecosystem is a key barrier.

Collaboration can help embed a resilient mindset at every level of the organisation, providing it is led from the front. Progressive measures to improve collaboration could include, for example, embedding airline operations managers within each airport’s operations centre to improve tactical decision-making. In the US the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) is mid-way through their redevelopment programme for New York Airports and has placed collaboration across the eco system at the heart of the programme. Facilitating easy access to operational and performance data for airport stakeholders continues to be a strategic priority given the complexity of their operations.

3. Clarifying and enhancing performance standards

The most efficiently run airports are those where there is an alignment of objectives between airports, airlines, and ground handling agents. Alignment requires close co-ordination between all parties, but there are several barriers that limit stakeholders’ ability to work together effectively. For example, a high degree of operational complexity and competing commercial interests. Overcoming these challenges will require all stakeholders to buy in to a common approach for performance management. A unifying goal such as improving airport wide punctuality might be a productive area of joint focus for airlines, ground handlers and airports that requires greater collaboration and performance management and ultimately delivers a better customer experience.

Additionally, competing commercial interests between different ground handling agents can impact operational resilience. Most contracts between ground handling agents and airlines are based on a pre-agreed price per aircraft turnaround (a ’fixed price’ pricing model). These contracts don’t always support high levels of resilience, especially when expected demand is uncertain, as was the case in the summer of 2022. Contracts could therefore be revisited to reset the relationship between operational resilience and cost.

4. Other opportunities

There is also scope to improve the use of ground support equipment, which is sometimes underutilised or poorly managed. Equipment utilisation could be improved through ‘pooling’ equipment across multiple ground handlers, in turn, unlocking greater economies of scale and equipment geolocation. Sharing common equipment can also improve operational flexibility. This has already been successfully deployed at Luton airport, leading to improvements in safety. Pooled equipment could even provide an opportunity to accelerate the transition to more sustainable airport ground equipment – like battery-powered tugs, lorries, and buses – by providing the basis for airport-wide investment in standardised electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Greater investment in technology and automation could also help to improve the passenger experience and increase operational efficiency. Many airports have already invested in automated stand guidance systems, which allow staff to focus on other responsibilities rather than marshalling aircraft on-stand.

The next steps for all involved is to identify, test, and implement the solutions that address these challenges, including working with the Government to implement its recommendations.

Many of the solutions to the aviation sector’s problems are complex and require significant investment and buy-in from across the value chain; but we’re seeing several signs of progress. Resourcing and capability have improved; trials are ongoing to test and introduce new technologies such as next-generation airport security scanners; and a new ground handling trade association has been established to help facilitate collaboration across suppliers and the Government. Many other examples of good practice at airlines, airports, and ground handlers were also identified as part of this review and we see important benefits for UK aviation as these are shared.

In an industry where margins are small and the cost of capital is high, every player within the aviation ecosystem must play a part in ensuring the sector remains environmentally, operationally, and financially sustainable in the long-term.

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