7th Americas GHI Conference, Punta Cana

7th Americas GHI Conference

It was fitting that this year’s GHI Americas Conference was held at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana where some of the world’s finest rock and pop bands have performed over the years. The biggest names in music where the likes of Ringo Starr and the Beach Boys have all visited the hotel and thrilled the crowds at the iconic resort overlooking the beautiful Macao Beach. Impressive music memorabilia adorns the huge gallery halls inside the 1,775-room hotel for visitors to look at, including a grand piano signed by the Beach Boys at the entrance. But enough of all that, the real attraction of the hotel on 13-15 June, of course, was the 7th GHI Americas Conference, that was taking place across three days at one of the biggest exhibition halls in the hotel.

More than 400 people walked through the doors, keen and expectant to what the next three days might hold for them and the chance to meet old and new friends in the industry once again. GHI Portfolio Director and Conference Chairman Max Gosney opened the conference with a speech thanking everyone who had helped the Americas conference become the success that it is today. “Ladies and gentlemen, not so far back at the first GHI Americas we had around 200 people and an idea and vision to create a dedicated forum for the outstanding people who make up the supply chain here in the Americas,” he said. “Now less than a decade later we are due to have over 400 people through the doors over the next three days and that is for the second successive year. We have 40 or so exhibitors waiting to see you and over 40 airlines represented, and over 2,000 meetings scheduled to take place. “GHI Americas is now our largest undisputed regional conference and is second to the annual. That kind of growth and success doesn’t happen without your loyal support, and telling lots of people about what we offer here. So, thank you for helping us build this conference up, brick by brick.”

He continued: “It is amazing what you can achieve when you work together. And that’s what we are in aviation: a team. It strikes me that our supply chain is a bit like light, made up of different components, colours; it’s indivisible to the naked eye to the passengers – we are all one thing: aviation.

“At GHI, we acknowledge and celebrate that environment – E pluribus Unum – out of many: one. One aviation team for better and for worse so we will be dubbing down and continuing to deliver premium conferences for all where the aviation family can come together in its entirety to do business and meet and discuss more opportunities for all. GHI is utterly committed to building inclusive quality-led forums that offer a proven return on investment at a time when every single cent matters. It is our deeply held belief that the supply chain that works together, wins together. And looking north to Mexico to the US border over to the Middle East and Palestine and Israel haven’t you had enough of people putting up walls? Now is the time to build bridges instead.” He went on to thank many of the conference’s sponsors for their support this year. Alliance Ground International, who were the Platinum Sponsor for the first time and to all the Gold Sponsors – ServAir, United Ground Express and WFS and silver sponsors Avro GSE and Damarel and to the other special sponsors including Unifi Service.

Big Debate - Day 1

Gosney began proceedings by introducing a panel of industry players for the Big Debate discussion which focused on: ‘How does Americas aviation capitalise on stellar demand while dealing with a deepening skills crisis?’. Raul Barrera, SVP – Commercial and Business Development, Menzies, was first to speak and explained in his view why the industry was still lagging behind the volumes of 2019 but growth was expected to happen in the near future, with markets due to perform 1.5 times their GDP growth. “We are dealing with a different number of challenges these days.” he told delegates. “Damage [due to the coronavirus pandemic] is still being felt by our business.” Santiago Valencia, Head of Maintenance and Technical Purchases, at ALTA, agreed with Barrera regarding growth trends, saying: “What we are seeing is a huge potential for growth in terms of travel per person. We know in Latin America there is a lot of business opportunities – up to 100% numbers of 2019.”

Katarzyna Maslanka, Vice President South America, at International Airlines Group (IAG), said in terms of growth against 2019, there was progress when looking at the results of the last quarter of 2022, with IAG at 87% of 2019 volumes. “Looking into the volumes of Q1 of 2023 we are only 5% below 2019 volumes worldwide. But if we look into the Americas we have exceeded 2019 volumes, almost by 2% in North America and approximately 1% for South America. We are definitely getting there but there is a long way to go, not only for the recovery volumes but preparing for what the current reality is like at the moment.” Ingrid Braeuninger, President at Airport Terminal Services (ATS), now known as AGI Ground, also painted a positive picture: “We have started to see days which exceed 2019, only seeing a slight difference in the path of recovery between US and Canada. ATS has grown by 35% and we were fortunate enough to see a lot of growth during the pandemic.” Olivier Arrindell, CEO of Ava Airways, brought a different perspective to the table, saying while growth was important as stakeholders in the industry more should be done to hold government officials to account to the laws and regulations. “We can talk about growth all day and all night. Rules are rules, there are bilateral agreements in place. For example, there are no taxes on international flights, ground handlers aren’t able to do business properly, airlines aren’t able to do business properly because we just want to be friends with people that are controlling the regulations, which were established before most of us were born. “It is called the Chicago Convention, and until we sit down and hold our officials accountable our industry will always be a threat. It was a threat before Covid and it’s going to be a threat after that. This is what Ava Airways is doing at the present moment before we have an inaugural flight with the Airbus 320/350. Because aviation is expensive no one is applying the rules and we need to challenge that.”


In the afternoon another panel discussion was held on: ‘Ramp technology that saves lives and boosts OTP’. David O’Connell, Managing Director of dBD Communications, spoke about the benefits of ramp operators wearing wireless headsets. “When we first started looking at airside safety threats, we found out that most of you, if not all of you were using fairly antiquated technology; using corded headsets. Now corded headsets come with a number of safety risks and threats. Firstly, if an aircraft is hit by lightning it’s discharged through the ground handler's head. You stop pushing back when there's a lightning storm. But I was also told by a number of ground handlers that sometimes you've started to push, take a look, then 20 minutes later the weather has changed, then you could be in that situation, in which case, the most safest thing to do is take the headset off and then do hand signals.” He told the conference during a previous GHI event in Dubai that some airports were now completely banning wired headsets for that reason because there is too much risk. “There's too much risk to put someone’s life in danger if the aircraft is struck, so they're having completely wireless operations airside.” O’Connell went on to explain that trip hazards were also dangerous. “If you're carrying 10-15 metres worth of copper cable around with you that's quite dangerous as a trip hazard to the operator and to the snagging of potential machinery that could cause damage.” While this raises safety issues he said, there are potential hidden costs to having repair those headsets four or five times a year because of the damage to the cable and the trip hazards. But wireless headsets eliminate those threats completely, he stressed. In America, he said, it’s slightly different to the rest of the world where wing walkers are more commonplace. “But wing walkers are creating their own inherent risks, there are issues with multiple blind spots around the aircraft,” he said. “Wireless headsets again eliminate this threat, you can put wireless communications on both communication to the cockpit and to those wing walkers, creating two different communication paths so that you can guarantee your communication linkage is maintained at all times.” Greg Polak, Director of Operations, East Region, Worldwide Flight Services (WFS), spoke frankly about the staffing crisis, saying they are no longer hiring 10 to 20 people, but are hiring hundreds in order to replace what they have lost during the pandemic, adding that there's a huge human capital risk that’s associated with new employees.

“No matter how much training you give them, there’s always going to be the one point that something can happen, and how can we mitigate that? Well, you use technology, you get away from the old and start with the new.” As part of this new tech drive, WFS has partnered with dBD Communications so that all pushback and tractor operators now use wireless technology. Another thing WFS has done is started collecting critical safety data to better understand where the hazards and risks lie on the ramp. “We wouldn't be able to do that if we remain with the technology of the past.” Working with technology like SmartSense equipment to prevent hazards while supporting supervisors and ramp workers with better tools for the job, such as using mobile phones. “We want to make sure that before they release that aircraft, they did everything that they needed to do and checked every critical safety checklist before everything gets done, and they've got to prove it to us through pictures, and, and of course, with timestamps.” Using that technology gave WFS operational stability and improved the safety culture as well as decrease aircraft damage rates and injury rates all across the network. Next up, Tim Fulton, Founder and CEO of Ramper Innovations took to the stage and told the audience how he wanted to become an advocate for ramp agents around the world. After spending 38 years as an ramp service agent himself, he decided to create an invention to make it safer and easier to do the job.

“It's a physically demanding job and I set out to bring my idea, invention to the world,” he said. His product, TISABAS (Tim Saves Backs), is a compact motorized folding conveyor system. “It’s designed to go into the aircraft belly to mechanically move bags, mail and cargo, eliminating the need to throw those items along the length of the aircraft.” He went on to share the grim reality stating that there are between four and six ramp agents die in the United States every year, stating 76% of employees will get hurt at one point in their career. “That says something when we realise that in most operations, it's over 100% turnover on a yearly basis for those agents because of the physically demanding part of the job. So we’ve got a lot of work to do to make this job easier and safer, and the agents can remain focused on what they need to do; sometimes it’s the little things that can make a difference,” he said.


The last panel of the day was the much-widely talked about subject in the news lately: Artificial Intelligence, (AI), but more specifically, its role in enabling ground handling operational excellence. David Kennedy, Chief Customer Officer, at Quantum Aviation Solutions, spoke about its usage in regard to GSE management and operational monitoring. “Like it or not, AI applications are significant for our industry. I think the phrase AI is doing two things in parallel: one, it is overused at the moment, attaching AI to everything like IoT was doing a few years ago. On the other hand, it needs to be taken seriously, it’s coming fast and it’s going to be making substantial changes to the industry beyond other technologies that we’ve seen over the last five or 10 years. The investment level will tell you, if nothing else, what the world is seeing coming our way. He then referred to a quote by Jensen Huang, CEO of Nvidia, from The Economist, who wrote: “The world is at the tipping point of a new computing era.” Interestingly, adding that Nvidia’s market cap recently hit $1 trillion on sales related to AI-critical semi-conductors. “This is a company which is strategically at the right place, at the right time. They have significant investment in chips which are specifically good at processing at a level that other companies aren’t able to, and the global environment, the Microsofts and the Googles of this world are aware.”

He joked about ChatGPT, the virtual conversationalist, and how it was dangerously good, not as good as the speech he prepared, and praised AI’s advanced software capabilities. “The one thing about AI which is really critical, is massive data crunching. This is not your average server running somewhere, this is using vast amounts of data. The whole idea of learning a system, teaching a system to learn about things requires a tremendous amount of data and processing equipment. It’s at a scale not really seen before, interestingly the market is ready for it, that’s why people like Nvidia are doing so well.”

AI case studies

Gabriel Roque, CEO of INFORM Brazil, said the Germany company has been developing AI solutions for 50 years. Scientists have been using machine learning since the 1990s and 1980s. He said: “Recently now it’s got interesting, there is a new type of machine learning, called deep learning, creating artificial neurons, it’s like a super powerful machine learning process where computers can deal with massive amounts of data. This creates new things like Generative AI like ChatGPT. The interesting thing about machine learning, it is so complex, it’s difficult to understand why the computer is making the decisions.” He then showed some examples how this type of technology is being deployed in the ground handling industry. In the terminal, it could help with queue management. He explained: “We can detect queues and waiting times at the check-in counter and security, taking action by sending more employees or redirecting the queues.”

Other use cases are to do with the back office for team and equipment planning. “Usually ground handlers have a very difficult task to plan things in advance when they receive a flight schedule from the airlines,” he said. But with machine learning it can help predict the number of passengers, bags, and loaded aircraft, and flight delays to allow planning to be more efficient. “Rosters are usually generated in a planning stage which has a lot of information missing. But based on historical data, machine learning algorithms can predict flight delays and aircraft load figures, allowing ground handlers to adjust staffing and equipment allocation precisely,” he said.

And lastly, it helps with autonomous buses task creations, meaning computer vision can detect people in buses and automatically send more buses if a bus is full. Luis Rosa from Saasa, which provides cargo, ramp and passenger services in Peru and Mexico, as well as passenger services in Colombia spoke on its AI solutions currently in operation. SAASA’s Security System combines AI powered video and access control able to match visual and physical characteristics as well as detect the presence and movement of people and vehicles, and in cold storage monitoring. The system monitors the cold storage units analysing data from sensors (temperature, humidity, and air pressure) and detects any fluctuations or deviations from the ideal temperature range. If the temperature begins to rise above a certain threshold, the AI system can send an alert to the responsible personnel, who can then take corrective action to prevent spoilage or damage to the stored products.

Day 2 - Passenger outlook

On day two, Barbara Mejia, Principal, Aviation, Travel and Tourism, ICF Aviation, gave some interesting points on the subject of Financial: The Americas aviation outlook, and said that the Americas was leading in terms of passengers recovery compared to the rest of the world. “2023 already looks at the case of Latin America to be above 2019 levels and the US and Canada is almost at 2019 levels,” she said. The main countries driving this growth are Mexico, Colombia and Brazil and US. Canada was delayed because it opened its borders later during the pandemic. There were recoveries across different types of airlines and models. “After two very difficult years, airlines in 2022 started to either be break even or show positive numbers. We have a good mix of airlines, many hybrid and full service airlines, being profitable in Latin America.” Another dynamic showing how the airline industry has changed is the shortage of US pilots, which is not only impacting the domestic US market, but also other regions of the world. “What is really interesting from the chart is that frequencies are actually going down for both North America and Latin America. However, the number of seats in the region is actually at the same levels of 2019 or almost are higher than the 2018 levels due to bigger aircraft operating in the region,” she said.

Another interesting fact, she continued, that happened during the pandemic was how airlines have shifted towards a different business model. She also mentioned the challenges facing airports in the Americas, especially in the US and Canada, saying investment into build new power infrastructure and charging stations was critical. “It seems that electrification is the way to go in order to reduce carbon emissions,” she added.

Following on, Gautam Thakkar, CEO of Unifi Service, the largest handler in the US, joined a panel to discuss how to convince non-aviation people to join the airport. He said his company started recruiting using social media, such as Facebook and TikTok to draw people into the industry. “I don't know how many of you have a Facebook account, but I was personally actually surprised, 10,000 people applied to us on Facebook, resumés that we would not have otherwise received,” he said. He went onto highlight how Unifi successfully hires refugees and veterans alongside school leavers. One thing they stress that those applying outside the industry is to not look at Unify as a job. “Anybody can give you a pay check, we want them to think when you are joining Unify, they can build a career and that’s a very big deal for us,” he said.

Mergers & acquisitions

Mike Garland, Retired Director at American Airlines, now Consultant at SHAECo Aviation Services Consulting, said consolidations were still taking place quite rapidly. Many big companies took advantage of the Covid crisis and grew by acquiring smaller struggling companies. “The bottom line is the industry has gone through quite a bit of consolidation and is still ripe for additional consolidation out of the marketplace,” adding that private equity investment cycles had now returned to normal following the disruption of the pandemic. He also mentioned that the ‘great resignation’ had now turned to the ‘great redetermination’ after people chose to leave the workforce, with demand for higher salaries impacting high labour costs globally. The next panel discussion focused on advancing electrification on the ramp across the Americas. Joe Griffith, Commercial Manager, Mallaghan Americas told delegates that there was ‘no one-size-fits-all solution’ in the GSE space, and working with partners was key to finding solutions. From listening to the panellists discussions from representatives from TLD, JBT AeroTech, Advanced Charging Technologies (ACT), TCR and Unifi, Griffith said the main takeaway from the sessions was collaboration and the inspiring achievements by GSE manufacturers and suppliers to date.

Jan De Leeuw, Managing Director North America, at TCR Group, said having adequate charging infrastructure at airports and standardisation of GSE were critical components to electrifying the ramp. It was important to avoid parallel GSE systems (gas/diesel/electric) in the same areas on the apron to avoid inefficiencies. De Leeuw said it was also beneficial to establish a timeline moving forward towards electrification, preferably by area/terminal and a long-term plan regarding the financial impact of converting to eGSE and the long OEM lead times. Such a plan would need to be approved by a central level of authority. He focused on issues such as battery management and the lack of GSE R&M technicians in this space. “They are one of the scarcest resources that we have and we need them, it's already very difficult to find them, to keep good technicians on the ramps, in our workshops, let alone make sure that they are transferred into different knowledges and get to know to the electrical equipment and our training. This is really a key element in our team,” he said.

Day 3 - Cargo opportunity

Patricio Sepulveda, Founder & CEO, Aeronex Cargo, gave a presentation on today’s picture of the air cargo market, stating capacity is almost the same as in 2019 with intense competition between freighter availability. He went on to say ‘in a crisis, air cargo always falls first, and recovers first’.

Air cargo represents an average of 20% of the total revenues for the passenger/cargo airlines and made the point how people's buying habits have changed and e-commerce is here to stay. “Air Cargo has great growth potential, but needs a more friendly business environment,” he said. The business relationship between airlines and ground handling companies was different and a new type of business interaction between them was needed, to act like partners, not only service providers and to encourage different promotions for staff. He suggested taking risks in markets to generate a different level of return and renegotiate deadlines or engage with airport authorities or regulators, and even technological platforms to avoid unnecessary investments and expenses. Albert Kalmbach, Assistant Vice President, Cargo Business Development, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, who started his career at MAX Global Logistics, said the team were taking a different approach to cargo than other airports, focusing on freight forwarders, shippers and consignees in the market, supporting what they needed to be successful as well as airlines and ground handlers and cargo handlers to make the whole ecosystem work better. DFW is the second busiest airport in the world and from a cargo standpoint, the fifth largest cargo airport in the US, not including the big hubs for FedEx and UPS.

He presented many of the airport’s innovations including autonomous cargo tugs, the DFW Cloud and an update on the NW Cargo redevelopment project which will include two new buildings, covering 330,000 square-feet of new warehousing. DFW also has the first airside Centralized Examination Station in the US, operated by dnata and staffed by CBP to inspect targeted air shipments and e-commerce. The last session was rounded off with a leadership roundtable discussion, led by Desiree Perez, Senior Consultant, Leadership & Organisational Development, Curium Solutions, looking at ways to fight back against the skills crisis. All in all it was another superb conference with many delegates and exhibitors happy with the level of engagement and networking opportunities available over the course of the event.

Exhibitors feedback

Among the exhibitors was Aviramp which has many boarding ramps in operation at airports in the Americas including Punta Cana.

Terri Smart-Jewkes, Global Sales & Marketing Director at Aviramp, said: “The GHI conference in Punta Cana worked well for us on so many different levels. We got to meet lots of potential customers and some existing, but the most amazing thing was nearly everyone deplaned using one of our mobile boarding ramps and bridges! So the impact that created was truly incredible! Having 19 ramps at the airport definitely made a real impression for everyone attending the conference.”

Roger Larreur, Chief Commercial Officer at AGI Group, the Platinum Sponsor of the event, said: “For the AGI Group, the GHI Americas conference exceeded our expectations as we were able to meet with a record number of customers, both current and future. It was also the best platform to introduce our new AGI branding to the aviation community. We were honoured to be the Platinum Sponsor this year and look forward to sponsoring more GHI America conferences.”

“It’s been one of the best conferences hands down,” said Mark Reppucci, Global Director, GSE Sales, Advanced Charging Technologies (ACT). We couldn’t agree more! Don’t miss the next GHI Americas Conference in Toronto on 25-27 June 2024.