OCS - ready for take-off

12th of March 2015
OCS - ready for take-off
OCS - ready for take-off

UK-based facilities services provider OCS has been working in aviation for over 50 years and now lists in excess of 50 airlines among its clients, in more than 25 airports worldwide. The company has the contract to clean over 70 per cent of aircraft landing at London’s Heathrow Airport, with British Airways being its largest client there. 

ECJ editor Michelle Marshall visited the airport to gain an insight into this most demanding of cleaning operations.

OCS has been a contractor at Heathrow Airport just outside London for over 25 years and now cleans over 70 per cent of the landing aircraft there. British Airways is its largest customer, however the company carries out services for most of the airlines using the airport. Heathrow is one of the world’s busiest airports, with passenger numbers reaching 73.4 million in 2014, and over 1,280 flights every day.

Time is one of the highest priorities for every airline OCS works with, which means this operation must be highly efficient and ultimately streamlined if each flight is to meet its time slot for departure.  Andy Windebank is OCS area director aviation and gateways, responsible for the smooth running of the contract.

He explained that clean times vary from seven minutes to one hour and 30 minutes, depending on the aircraft and whether it’s a short or long haul journey. “In some of our contracts, our team must meet the aircraft within four minutes of the chocks going down in order to board and clean. And if they’re not on time, there are penalties to pay in our contract.”

There are 2,500 OCS staff working at Heathrow – for British Airways alone the company handles up to 250 short-haul departures on a busy day, and over 100 long hauls. There are 19 long haul teams and 16 short haul working on this one airline, and that’s before taking into account the others OCS has contracts with. On an 11.5 hour shift operatives clean between 16 and 17 short haul planes, on an 8.5 hour shift it’s between 10 and 11.

This makes this contract a major human resources operation, requiring a HR manager on-site, payroll department, roster manager, health and safety, accident investigation, etc. Some of our employees are members of a trades union and Heathrow works under a collective agreement. “Staff planning is absolutely critical and we do our schedules six months in advance, with last-minute finalising completed three days in advance,” explains Windebank.

Because OCS staff are working in such a high-security environment, all new recruits must undergo stringent checks before they join the team, including their right to work in the UK (there are cleaning operatives of many nationalities).  “All our those vetting procedures must then be verified and proved with the management at Heathrow itself,” Windebank adds.

The fact this is better paid than many office cleaning jobs, due to the increased responsibility, makes it an attractive job and the company does not experience difficulties with recruitment. “We have many applications, however the selection process is so stringent only a percentage get through that,” says Windebank.

After completing the company induction programme all recruits must then achieve a search qualification because all operatives must be trained in finding suspect devices – and they must know what action to take if they do find something suspicious. Windebank emphasises: “One of the most important jobs we do is removing anything that should not be on the aircraft. And if something is found the teams must know the appropriate action to follow.”

To protect the security of the aircraft, it is also the responsibility of everyone working airside at Heathrow to challenge anyone they see who is not displaying the relevant ID. That includes the OCS team members.

In order to manage the challenging logistics of secure cleaning so many aircraft in any 24 hour period, OCS runs an air traffic control style of operation from its own office at the airport. There is a bank of screens and various controllers assigning jobs to the cleaning teams via PDA. This is the hub of the operation and the team leaders get their instructions from here. All vehicles are also tracked from here as they make their way from aircraft to aircraft. OCS has 230 vehicles on the site, ranging from trucks and vans to the high-lifts that carry the necessary supplies to and from each aircraft.

High standard requirements

We visit one of the teams as they are cleaning a British Airways long haul aircraft that has arrived from JFK Airport in New York, and will return there. The system runs like clockwork, with cleaners always boarding the aircraft through the same back door and other contractors using alternative entrances. Responsible for British Airways long haul aircraft turnaround is Paul Boswell and he explains BA has established requirements for extremely high standards of aircraft appearance. In fact the team has a list of 87 search and cleaning tasks to be completed on each clean.

“Not only does the team clean and carry out a security check,” explains Boswell,  “the operatives must ensure safety cards and magazines are placed in seat pockets, cross seat belts and distribute blankets.” OCS carries out laundering of all BA blankets and handles recycling of as much cardboard and plastic waste as possible. Headsets must be collected and sanitised. Then OCS sends its toilet and water teams to each flight to empty and replenish water tanks and toilets.  The company also runs the BA stores at Heathrow, from where magazines, headsets and aircraft information cards are distributed.

On a long haul flight there is more time for the team to carry out what’s called a prime clean, which consists of a team of between 10 and 11 being on the aircraft for up to an hour-and-a-half, depending on the schedule. The separate ramp sweep team goes in to collect used blankets and headsets from the front of each aircraft.

Firstly operatives remove everything from the seats and seat areas, then perform their prime clean according to the 87-point specification from BA, before finally ‘dressing’ the aircraft ready for the next passengers to board.

As Boswell explains: “Long haul cleaning teams stay in long haul, they do not move to short haul. And each team will carry out up to five jobs a day.”

Short haul flights, on the other hand, are landing at Heathrow every few minutes and the team must mobilise quickly because they literally have minutes to do their job. Once the aircraft has stopped and the passengers are off, they enter through the back door via their bespoke design steps and get to work immediately. The team leader cleans the galley, one operative takes care of cleaning and restocking the washrooms while the other two search the seats for lost property and suspicious objects, clear rubbish, etc.

It’s during the night stops that the prime clean takes place, which is a higher level of operation, similar to that on a long haul flight prime clean during the day. “During the day we are literally performing a cabin tidy on short haul,” explains Nick Pearce who is responsible for British Airways short haul aircraft turnaround. “We do not change magazines, for example. When you take into consideration the turnaround time for the whole flight is a maximum of 40 minutes – which includes cleaning and catering staff doing their job, crew and passengers boarding – the time pressures we are under are obvious.”

Periodic deep cleans

Deep cleans of aircraft are carried out periodically, with the frequency depending on each airline’s contract. Deep cleans involve far more detailed work and take many hours. The aircraft is cleaned in sections and carpets are shampooed, seats dismantled, detailed areas thoroughly wiped, etc. There are two specialist deep cleaning teams, each made up of 30 people.

The first OCS crew starts at 5am, then there are different start times throughout this 24-hour-a-day operation. And as Boswell explains, team performance is tracked and monitored closely on every single clean. “Because London is a base station airport,” Windebank adds, “aircraft go through a much more thorough clean here than when they reach the other leg of their journey.”

Whatever the level of cleaning operation, a record is kept of who has search cleaned each area on an aircraft - in case a suspect object is later found - and the team leader then signs off the aircraft as being searched and safe. “The team leader is ultimately responsible for the final check and walk-through,” explains Paul Boswell.

The OCS operation may run like clockwork, but is also at the mercy of weather and any other unexpected events that can bring Heathrow Airport to a standstill. “For example, transatlantic delays can cause tremendous upheaval,” explains Windebank. “Teams may be standing for periods of time doing absolutely nothing, then a whole batch of flights can arrive at once and we are under pressure to turn them around quickly to improve or maintain on time performance.”

British Airways, as the client, has its own aircraft appearance group and 20 joint visits by client and contractor are carried out each week. Aircraft appearance general manager at Heathrow for OCS is James Wilkes who explains: “We clean 440 aircraft a day in total and my responsibility focuses around customer interface and efficiencies.” What’s his greatest challenge?

“We must clean aircraft to our customers’ specifications in the very limited time available. And our customers have very high expectations. We must also take into account that each airline has different expectations and varying specifications for their cleaning.”

He continues: “The drive for better productivity is also always utmost in my mind, which we try to achieve with new products and better working methods.”

Julian Welham is business delivery manager for Heathrow operations for BA and is the main client contact for OCS at Heathrow – he looks after all contracted operational services. Windebank describes BA as a “practical and understanding client. If something goes wrong for a good reason they understand, as long as we put measures in place to prevent it happening again.”

Customer survey

“The primary drivers for us,” explains Welham, “are around delivery of customer expectation and operational performance, along with safety and value for money.

“From our suppliers I look for high quality operations with no impact on our punctuality. Aircraft appearance quality and cleanliness must be what’s expected, a given, particularly in those premium cabins where passengers are spending thousands of pounds on a ticket. Our customers are quite critical and what they notice quickly is cabin appearance.”

Welham continues: “A key challenge for us is the brand new aircraft coming into the fleet which customers will expect to look brand new at all times.” He added that with some of the older aircraft, the challenge there is that passengers expect the same high standards to be maintained.

BA has a Customer Voice online monthly survey to gauge passenger opinion about various aspects of their travel experience, and cleaning is always high on the list of priorities. “But cleaning is also a given as far as they’re concerned,” explains Welham. “If OCS is not doing its job properly, that will be reflected in our customers’ experience.”

And there is a balance between cleaning and getting the plane away punctually – this can be challenging to achieve at times. Here Welham admits: “Sometimes certain aspects have to be compromised if a flight is running late because even when everything is on schedule the time allowance is very short.

“We do have a productive and longstanding relationship with OCS,” Welham continues. “The team understands the challenges we face and adapt to them well. We’re well aligned in partnership while also respecting each of us has our own business objectives.

“If necessary we have frank, open discussion and focus on problem-solving.”

As a company BA prioritises cost, quality and profitability. “It’s always a balance to get the right value from each of our suppliers,” Julian Welham points out. “We are currently questioning how we can work more productively. For example can the OCS team perform additional tasks without extra cost, or with marginal cost?

“Moving forward our focus is how we jointly approach specifications, the costs associated with specification changes and how OCS works with us. We are seeking more ‘joined-up’ activity with our partners in the supply chains and there is a drive for commonality and efficiencies. We need flexibility from our service suppliers.”

•Photography by Les Kancir Photography, www.lkphotos.co.uk


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