Newly appointed ground-handling companies Menzies Aviation, and BidAir Services would take over this portion of service delivery to passengers as of March 1, 2008, and both companies have committed to a an improvement of these services to passengers, as well as a reduction in criminal activity involving passengers baggage.

“The Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) has attached a rigorous and unambiguous service level agreement to the ground handling licence, a crucial mechanism to ensure improved service levels are realised,” Acsa director of operations Bongani Maseko added.

Another important aspect of the licensing conditions, aimed at improving services, was that BidAir and Menzies were not allowed to hire temporary staff. The companies should also have adequate supervisory capabilities, and the companies should do more stringent background checks on staff, compared to what had taken place in the past.

It was hoped that interruption at the airports would be minimal at handover, and that the transition would be smooth on the night. Already 95% of airlines using Acsa’s airports have signed contracts with either Menzies or BidAir, and it was hoped that the outstanding airlines would do so before the end of the week when the handover takes place.

The two companies had to compete for customers, and Menzies customer portfolio includes South African Express, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya airways, Quantus and British Airways among others. The BidAir customer base comprised about 25 airlines that operate in South Africa, some of these being Kulula, Lufthansa, KLM, Air France, and Singapore Airlines.

Although the companies had separate sets of customers, there were levels of cooperation in place to ensure smooth running of operations.

All South African Airlines have the right to choose their own handling company or manage baggage handling internally, South African Airways has exercised their right to self-handle, and would enter into a joint venture with Swissport – one of the previous ground handlers, whose contract expired in 2006.

A third ground handling company would be appointed by Acsa, as was initially envisaged. Delays in this regard took place because previous licence holder, Equity, challenged the termination of Acsa’s contracts with the company. The matter was taken to the High Court, which found in favour of Acsa in January 2008.

The tender process for the third handler has opened and Acsa hoped to award the third contract by June 2008, and the company would likely be operational before February 2009.

BidAir senior executive sales and marketing Bob Gurr, indicated that the company spent about R220-million in capital expenditure to cater for wide body (double aisle aircrafts) as well as narrow body (single aisle aircrafts) handling, it had equipment already in place at the airports, and other equipment would be bought on at 00:01 on the night of changeover. He also wished to allay suspicions that this would be the first time BidAir would ever see an Acsa airport, and noted that the company was “not a new kid on the block”.

Menzies Africa director Forsyth Black said that the company had invested about R170-million in capital expenditure in South Africa, and had been in constant interaction with Acsa to ensure that it had enough equipment. The bulk of Menzies equipment had been in South Africa since September or October 2007.

Maseko concluded by saying that Acsa hoped for improved cooperation and accountability as a responsibility to passengers, and one of the firms expectations from the new ground handlers was that the problems of baggage pilferage “will go away”.

Despite the fact that a large number of staff under the previous ground handling companies would continue to work under new contracts for either Menzies or BidAir, the companies asserted that the problem of theft would be tackled through better management. A combination of breaking up cliques, and bringing in outsiders would also go some way to show that what has happened in the past is not necessarily the way to go forward.

“We are committed to reducing incidents where possible within our ambit,” concluded Gurr.

Airport ground handlers are responsible for the processing of passengers at check-in, bussing of passengers to the aircraft, the transporting and loading of passenger baggage onto the aircraft and offloading on arrival, the loading of catering equipment and food, passenger communication in case of operational anomalies, baggage handling, and safe operations.

Acsa stated that it had put in place a change management plan across all Acsa airports, with ground handlers and other stakeholders’ assistance, to ensure service was not compromised during the transition period. “Depending on operational requirements and any challenges that may arise, additional personnel would be deployed in the operations and baggage management areas. There will also be increased presence of safety and security personnel to ensure smooth transition,” Acsa reiterated.