For many years, ground handling companies have seen their profits squeezed by airlines, who see the service as a low-value commodity. Competition in the airline industry is fierce, and ground ops are regarded as an area where costs can be trimmed ad infinitum, allowing investment in perceived higher value activities, be it advertising, in-flight entertainment or robots at the check-in desk.

But this is a false economy. With brand loyalty almost non-existent in the air transport industry, ground operations are fundamental to delivering customer experiences that drive increased passenger retention, lower costs and higher margins for airlines. And now, with advances in technology, ground ops providers have an opportunity to make themselves indispensable to their airline clients, by sharing, collecting and leveraging the reams of data flowing backwards and forwards every day.

The customer acquisition challenge

Airlines are stuck between a rock and a hard place, as they see their own margins squeezed by the customer acquisition process. The rise of flight aggregators such as Skyscanner, Booking.com and increasingly Google, has led to a price and schedule driven market, with more than a third (37%) of passengers purchasing based on cost and 17% based on the flight schedule (Statista). Google has data, scale and convenience on its side, making the airline brand irrelevant in too many cases and, as usual, the search engine always comes out on top.

Driving passenger loyalty

Unable to compete with Google on reach and certainly not on acquisition data, airlines therefore need other ways to differentiate themselves, to drive a unique passenger experience, increase value-added services and improve brand loyalty. The flight is currently the only area where airlines have direct control over the passenger experience, leaving a huge gap in the customer journey – the airport.

Passengers spend minimum of two hours travelling to the airport, queuing for check-in and security, then waiting in departures, with numerous opportunities for customer interaction, regarding flight changes and delays, queue times or customer preferences. But, with no visibility of this part of the customer journey, the airline has no way of personalising or customising these interactions.

The result is a travel experience that is frequently disappointing, with IATA figures showing that only 52% of passengers were satisfied with their last journey, further exacerbating the loyalty problem.

Step forward, ground handlers

Plugging this gap in passenger visibility all comes down to data and this is where the ground handling companies have the ace card. Ground handlers are the information hub for the passenger at the airport, with access to passenger and flight data, baggage information and catering details. The problem is that currently this information is only shared via legacy technology such as email, Telex and walkie-talkie, which means it’s quickly lost or misplaced. If the individuals involved were able to share and, crucially, collect and store this information more effectively, it’s value for the passenger experience and driving loyalty for airlines would be considerable.

Airlines would finally have the information they need to drive meaningful passenger interactions at the airport, while ground handlers would have a vital lever in their relationship with the airlines, providing an additional revenue stream and way of reversing the persistent decline in profits. Ground handlers could effectively become the data provider to their airline partners, digitising the entire customer journey and increasing operational performance across the board.

It may sound like a big leap for ground operations companies, but it doesn’t have to be, thanks to the technology now available. Deolan’s Logbook has been built for exactly this purpose, providing a social media style collaboration platform, that enables ground handling providers to log flight and passenger details in real-time, to be shared with their teams and various stakeholders, including airlines. The technology can be up and running in a matter of hours, is intuitive to use and cost-effective to run.

It’s time for ground handlers to fight the perennial profit squeeze – and for flying to become fun again.