Part 1: The changing world of PRM management solutions

Part 1: The changing world of PRM management solutions

PRM Management is the most difficult of all airport services to get right – this article explains why this is the case and why it no longer needs to be.
Original Article published in International Airport Review

Why PRM Management is a crucial yet impossibly complex service for airports to get right – and why things have suddenly started to change?

“PRM”, which stands for “Passengers with Reduced Mobility”, is one of the names used to describe the free service European airports have been legally bound to offer to all passengers with reduced mobility since 2008. All that passengers need to do to get access to the service is to ask for it. Then, they can expect to be taken safely and freely to and from their plane within the airport. Sometimes confusingly, PRM is also known under a variety of other names : “Special Assistance”, “Mobility” and “Wheelchair” services, to mention just three of them.

Though many people work at large airports, only a minority work directly for the airport itself or its airline clients. That is because airports are world experts at outsourcing services on an industrial scale via a wide array of service providers. Most people one sees working at an airport actually work for service providers who have been awarded 3 to 5 year contracts by the airport or the airlines via tenders. These range from “Handlers” who man many of the check-in desks and departure gates at the airport (even if they wear an airline uniform), to baggage, security checkpoint and aircraft turnaround handlers (who see to it aircraft are refuelled, filled with food, luggage and freight, de-iced, etc).

Yet, PRM is fundamentally unlike any other airport service. In fact, it is universally known as the one truly fiendishly complex, if not impossible, service to deliver regularly on time, at the required quality level and according to budget. Industry wisdom has it that if you can run PRM reliably, you can run any service on earth.

What, one may well ask, makes PRM so horribly difficult to master? And why does it matter ?

Let’s start with why PRM is so important. Legally, no plane can be turned around until all PRM passengers have been disembarked – and this can only be done by specially trained personnel employed by PRM providers. Until a qualified agent arrives to disembark the plane’s PRM passenger(s), the plane can’t be cleaned or take on new passengers.

The plane’s next departure slot is at risk as are its daily number of trips objective and the punctuality of all of its subsequent flights. This in turn impacts the airport’s slot schedule. If, as is likely, the plane is late as a result, the cost to the airline for being late to leave its gate will rapidly bite into its profits. One begins to see the severe damage that just one late PRM passenger can make to a plane’s daily schedule. This is even more true for low-cost airlines whose business model depends on faster turnaround times to enable more flights per aircraft per day.

But when things spiral out of control, it isn’t one, but many planes that run the risk of being late. There is also the sensitive question of the PRM passenger’s experience. On the one hand, PRM passengers can suffer greatly as a result of their dependency upon others: when they are late and miss a plane, the impact on them can be many times more traumatising than it would already be for a completely mobile passenger. This is unbearable from a human point of view and dangerous from a PR corporate standpoint as bad publicity can rapidly ensue with dire commercial consequences as the media love to dwell on such incidents.

Second, why is PRM so hard to master ? The answer is that it is a fundamentally unpredictable activity.

The very high volatility of the things PRM assistance depends upon on but has no control over threaten to, and frequently do run havoc with the daily activity: change of gate, switch from jet-bridge to ambulift boarding/un-boarding, SSR type change (classification of the degree of mobility of a passenger ), volume of last-minute un-notified “ad-hoc” passengers, no-show passengers, to mention a few. The pressure rises all the time like milk about to boil : weather provokes delays, accentuating the situation. A large plane comes in with 10 unannounced PRM passengers. Others planes land without their notified PRM passengers showing up, preferring on second thoughts to do without assistance. And so on.

One begins to understand why running a PRM service at a large international airport is not for the fainthearted: it is a little-loved service that frequently turns to disaster from the point of view of passengers, airlines, the airport and the company providing the service. All have learned to fear PRM. If this sounds excessive, consider the following :

  • The majority of large airports in Europe are not capable of providing reliable, traceable basic SLA data that give a true picture of the actual service being delivered. For example, most large airports usually have no reliable answer to apparently simple questions such as “how many PRM passengers used my airport’s PRM service last year” or “How many PRM jobs” were late last year?”
  • Neither the airport nor the provider they appoint through a tender know the true cost of the PRM service because they don’t have the necessary information : they don’t know the real number of PRM passengers who will be provided an actual PRM service. This regularly results in the Provider realising he grossly underestimated the workload and having to degrade the service level well below the defined target level to reduce his costs and avoid losing money and/or having to stop his activity; in the airport having to agree to higher prices mid-contract or see the provider being shut down.
  • Many PRM pre-notified passengers never turn up (a passenger who requested PRM assistance when they booked their flight may change their mind when they land because they feel good enough to proceed alone  while forgetting to inform anyone). These “no show” PRM passengers can represent 14 % of the PRM passenger total – at a large and reasonably-well organised international airport !
  • Many turn up at the airport PRM assistance desk requesting help even though they didn’t “pre-notify” the airline as they are supposed to 36 hours before their flight. Yet, the airport and therefore the provider, is legally obligated to assist them, even if the service turnaround time the provider has to carry out the job is increased.
  • Because there is no centralised system shared by airlines, provider and the airport, no-one knows the net balance of PRM passengers who turn up on any actual day. The provider may not tell the airport that the agent sent to collect a pre-notified passenger on an incoming plane didn’t turn up – what is called a “No show” in the industry – because they fear that they won’t be paid for the job as much or even at all.
  • Many passengers’ names requesting assistance appear several times because the same passenger may forewarn the airline, the PRM provider or an airport helpdesk or checkpoint desk, or passengers are entered on the telephone when they present themselves without pre-notification. Multiple entries of the same passenger under a name with slightly different spellings are often not spotted as duplicates because most PRM IT systems neither centralise nor systematically re-duplicate all PRM job orders. This is how service providers often invoice the airport for more jobs than are actually done without necessarily knowing it ! No official format exists for departure PRM jobs, making this type of mistake easier and considerably more widespread than need be.
  • Discrepancies in crucial airline forewarning (36 hours “Pre-notification”) discipline have been tolerated with the bad performance of some airlines going on lastingly unchallenged. The result is that the service provider’s job of “sizing” their daily activity (determining how many agents they will need to carry all the expected PRM passengers on the day) is impossible to get right. How can you reliably deliver a service when you don’t know if you will have 1 000 or 600 PRM passengers on the day ? Yet 30 to 40 and even 50 % variations between the number of pre-booked PRM jobs and the number turning up on the day are standard.
  • This is because the service provider has to accept people who turn up on the day requesting assistance without having notified their airline previously. If I am feeling tired, have difficulty speaking the language spoken at the airport, orientating myself in a large airport, I am entitled to request assistance for free even if I just turn up un-announced on the day – says the law in Europe. Such passengers are called “ad-hocs”. They are the reason some airlines pre-notify 80, 90 % of their PM passengers while others pre-notify as little as 30 % without this number being rare.
  • Recently, some airports have begun charging airlines with poor pre-notification scores more for the service than they do disciplined airlines, but poor pre-notification performance remains widespread. This impacts PRM passengers with severe mobility restrictions most because the influx of passengers with no or very slightly impaired mobility absorb precious agent resources that should be focused on helping those whose condition really requires their timely, expert assistance. Though, this is ethically and economically unfair, it has gone on largely unchallenged for years.

These challenges are magnified by demographic trends such as an ageing and increasingly overweight and therefore less healthy, population.

This is apparent in the numbers:

PRM passenger growth everywhere is dramatically outpacing overall air travel growth : when large European airports register 3 % annual passenger annual growth, their PRM growth is usually in the 10 to 15 % range. This may sound marginal – it isn’t. It means airport will see their PRM passenger traffic double every 4 to 5 years! The consequences of this discrepancy on PRM passenger service is dramatic because the airport tax that finances PRM services is levied on airlines on the basis of overall traffic growth, not PRM traffic growth.

You would think that faced with such dynamics most airports would take the bull by the horns and take strong measures to ensure PRM services are managed to a particularly high level, would rein in the poor discipline of airlines with dismal pre-notification records, ensure crucially important IT systems are chosen to absorb the activity’s structural unpredictability and accelerate active collaboration between airlines, airport and service providers to slowly but surely improve service outcomes. What has happened in the last few years has been the opposite – denial : “everything is just fine” airports would and still say publicly as the situation deteriorates. This situation is now widely understood by many national airport supervisory bodies in Europe, organisations who represent PRM passenger’s interests and many airport-user exchange groups.

The good news is that things have recently taken a dramatic turn for the better. A few visionary airports have recognized that the traditional model of PRM service provision is broken, unsustainable and very costly in human, financial and reputation terms. They have taken dramatic action with the results starting to show the massive benefits of getting it right. As the omerta about poor service starts to give way and some airports show how things can be dramatically improved, the whole scene is starting to change rapidly. Such airports include Paris Airports CDG and Orly, Brussels airports and now Oslo airport where visionary and forward thinking teams at both the airport and provider level decided it is time to make PRM work effectively.

Thanks to what these forward-thinking airports have done and proved with their very real trusted data, all airports can now quite easily and rapidly deploy major initial implementations in just 3 months.

Part II of this article will come out in the next issue of your PRM Newsletter at the end of June. It will focus on how the particular difficulties that characterize airport PRM services covered in Part I can now be addressed successfully with a host of practical examples. Airports who have opened their eyes to the very real challenges faced by their PRM service delivery teams will now know that the effective, practical and proven answer to their hopes exists – and that nothing prevents them adopting it to finally get the consistently reliable PRM delivery they, their passengers, contractor’s agents and airline clients all want.

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