Some airports heeding calls for cost control

 - November 1, 2006, 9:54 AM

When corporate headquarters in Atlanta called on Comair to fly Bombardier CRJs three times a day from Cincinnati into Missouri’s Springfield-Branson Regional Airport, the wholly owned Delta subsidiary faced a dilemma familiar to regional airlines everywhere–how to establish a new station too small to justify the cost of the needed equipment and staff. Until recently, the only option lay with hiring another airline to perform the duties. But when the airport offered to do the ground handling itself for less than a competing airline, Comair could find no good reason to decline.

Springfield-Branson marketing director Sherry Wallace said she knows of just one airport that offers a comparable service–Quad Cities Airport in Moline, Ill.–but others have begun to take notice. In fact, she said, officials from Fort Wayne and Evansville, Ind., Toledo, Ohio; Charleston, W. Va; Springfield, Ill.; and Appleton, Wis., have all shown interest. “As this becomes successful in more and more cities it will hopefully become more accepted in the industry and make it a little easier [to sell],” said Wallace.

Established about three years ago to support charter operations after their old ground handler, TWA, went out of business, Springfield-Branson’s service covers the entire range of support functions, from checking passengers to loading baggage to lav service, de-icing and cabin cleaning. The airport owns and maintains all the tractors, bag tugs and belts and deicing equipment it needs to perform those functions, saving airlines the cost and hassle of buying it themselves.

Out of the five regional airlines that operate at Springfield-Branson, only Comair has hired the airport for its ground handling so far. Of course, any talk of outsourcing would send unions from the incumbent carriers into a tizzy. But because it didn’t already fly into the airport, Comair served as an ideal test case. “Once word got out it was working, more and more airlines are becoming more and more intrigued,” said Wallace.

The airport performs all of Comair’s “below the wing” activity, while the airline does its own customer service. Although the contract covers de-icing equipment, a Comair employee mans the basket, more because of liability concerns than union pressure. The airport charges $175 a turn for everything, but the savings in capital investment account for most of the cost benefit. “We happened to mention it to Comair when they were down here, and the properties guys’ ears perked up,” recalled Wallace. “We’re not looking at them putting in ten 737s a day…we’re looking at three RJs, so how do you justify at least a quarter of a million dollar outlay in equipment, not even counting your personnel costs?”

According to Wallace, the program not only saves money but also does the job more quickly and better. At regional airports airlines typically use two people to get an airplane ready to depart and send it on its way while maybe another individual works the counter. If things don’t go exactly as planned, on-time performance inevitably suffers. The airport uses teams of three ramp workers and at least another pair of customer-service people.

“Staffing has been cut to the bare bone at all airlines, particularly [at airports] with few enplanements,” said Wallace. “It’s a little ironic because some things are constant no matter what the size of the aircraft. You still have to check in the passengers, you still have to transfer the bags whether it’s 50 passengers or 300 passengers.”