Ramping up efficiency

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Steve Szalay took over as dnata’s general manager ground services at London Heathrow International Airport in April 2012. Since then he has overseen a radical overhaul of the handler’s operations at London’s biggest and busiest air gateway

When Szalay took over at Heathrow, he found an operation in need of some radical overhaul. Dnata had only relatively recently acquired the entity – part of the Go Ahead Group – formed from the merger of the two handlers Aviance and Plane Handling at the gateway, and the integration of the two had been a very complicated undertaking merging two cultures and business processes. Indeed, there was a need for “root and branch change”, he says, procedural, systemic and structural, to implement a ‘dnata way’ at what was the handler’s initial foray into the UK handling market.

Szalay’s first task was to conduct an extensive analysis of the handler’s oper  ation at Heathrow, then to prioritise the 55 or so action points that he had identified. Perhaps most importantly, he recalls, there was a need to re-establish a much higher degree of managerial presence and supervision on the ramp. There was little oversight of the handlers working on the ramp, and this was a problem that the dnata leadership team addressed promptly, bringing managers back into the working area and back into much closer day-to-day contact with the ramp team. “Managers must live and breathe the operation with the staff,” he says.

Benefiting from his experience of senior command in the British Army (Szalay left the forces as a lieutenant colonel, a Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers battalion commander), he brought in a new command and control organisation and procedures. When he took over, he had 14 direct reports, and the business structure was territorial rather than geographical. He streamlined the business so as to have only three direct reports, all of which are functional in nature. This not only allows for greater accountability but also enables leaders to better assess where functional synergies can be achieved, Szalay insists. Critical to all of this was the formation of a strong management team, all focused on delivering the improvement plan.

Command structure was only one of many challenges that had to be resolved but, over the next six to 12 months, changes were introduced that have made a massive change to the efficiency and performance of the team at Heathrow. One of the areas in which that has been most evident is safety on the ramp, always a pressing concern for any handler. Last year, dnata suffered only one aircraft damage incident, down from 12 during the previous 12 months – a massive improvement.

There’s more to be done, however, and as part of a Dubai-led global programme (dnata forms part of the Emirates Group), Szalay and his team will be working with BST – a US-headquartered safety consultancy – over the next five years to further improve ramp safety. This initiative, entitled ‘OneSafety’, is all about changing mindsets and behaviours, he says, and could make a huge change to the culture amongst dnata’s 2,000-strong workforce at Heathrow.


Szalay and his team have been able to make so many changes in such a short time by working closely with partners at Heathrow, like the airport’s operating authority. From being what he would describe as a “bad tenant” a couple of years ago, Szalay now considers dnata’s reputation at the gateway as being of the highest quality. He has worked closely with individuals such as Nick Platt, the airport’s head of ground handling, to achieve this rapid turnaround, and that degree of collaboration is still evident.

For example, dnata is one of the handlers at Terminal 4 involved in the airport’s first experiment with GSE pooling. Since September, handlers including dnata, Cobalt, Azzurra, Menzies and Swissport have been sharing pooled passenger stairs at T4. Ten stair units were initially provided by Heathrow for the handlers to share, a number that will be incrementally reduced to see where efficiencies can be achieved (less GSE means financial savings but, more importantly, it means less equipment on the ramp and therefore less congestion and less likelihood of ‘ramp rash’).

The trial runs until early 2015 and, while there have been one or two issues that have needed sorting out, generally the experiment has proceeded smoothly, Szalay considers. GSE supplier TCR was quick to make modifications to stair units where they didn’t meet dnata’s specifications, he notes; it’s all been very well co-ordinated from above; and the handlers themselves have co-operated to give the trial the best possible chance of success (at least, up to the time of Airside going to press in October).

“There’s definitely scope for expansion of the pooling concept,” Szalay insists, though there remain challenges ahead. Perhaps primarily, he suggests: “The issue is how much of my sovereignty I want to give up to the airport. Our equipment is so good, it’s a real discriminator for us. I want to make sure that we continue to be the most admired handler at the airport.”

Further improvements

With the development of dnata City, the handler’s next-generation cargo handling facility at the gateway, there is plenty more change still to come. This massive investment by the Emirates Group is expected to show a return very quickly, Szalay reports. The CEO of dnata Ltd, UK, Gary Morgan, has a clear vision for dnata to become the most admired air services provider, not just at Heathrow, but across the country, while dnata HQ in Dubai is said to have been “hugely supportive” of the changes that have been brought in at Heathrow.

The process has not been simple, and has not always been easy for individual dnata employees. Restructuring has come at a price in terms of voluntary redundancies that always mean an unsettling time for any workforce. But what Szalay describes as “a massive two years of change” has brought rapid, measurably improved results. “All our statistics are trending upwards,” he reports, and “our Safe-OTP (on-time performance) is fantastic.” Clearly, for dnata at Heathrow, change has been good.