In their shoes

How dnata’s UK’s unorthodox approach to delivering air services, based on its commitment to respecting and delighting its customers and employees, is the secret to its phenomenal overnight success.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015 —

“Ground handling is not that entertaining,” says Gary Morgan, the immensely affable, tell-it-how-it-is CEO of dnata’s UK operations. And he should know more than most, having worked in the aviation industry for 33 years, first cutting his teeth as a bonded store assistant at Manchester Airport and then working his way up the career ladder, including long stints at what he calls “orthodox” cargo handlers, before taking the helm at dnata UK in August 2012. “It’s hard to get excited about ground handling and therefore it’s hard to get excited about service delivery. But it’s a simple process made complicated, usually by people and systems.”

This statement pretty much summed up industry sentiment just three years ago when dnata, under the leadership of Gary Chapman, president group services & dnata, Emirates Group, decided it was time to put the ‘wow’ factor into this notoriously unglamourous sector of the aviation world. 

“It started with a fundamental change in company culture,” explains Mohammed Akhlaq, dnata UK’s senior vice president – business development, who was brought on board at the same time as Morgan to help spearhead a new innovative way of running a cargo- and ground-handling business. “I was in a unique position to say, ‘let’s push the boundaries and make a difference in the marketplace’,” he says. “dnata has a mission statement that it actually puts into practice, entrusting its people to develop customer-focused ideas based on the company’s core values.” Akhlaq’s referring to what dnata has coined, it’s “VMVs” (Vision, Mission, Values). Its ‘Vision’ is to be the world’s most admired air services provider; its Mission is to deliver the promises its customers make; and its ‘Values’ are sharply focused on safety, being performance driven, service excellence, delighting customers, and crucially, imagination and respect.

“dnata has a mission statement that it actually puts into practice, entrusting its people to develop customer-focused ideas based on the company’s core values.”

Morgan says these VMVs are much more than a “great strapline” –they have been “brought to life”, transforming dnata UK into a company that today, employs 2,500 people, handles more than 25,000 aircraft turns a year, not to mention more than 600,000 tonnes of cargo. 

In the last year alone, dnata invested more than £20 million in facilities, equipment, training and technology to support the growth of aviation in the UK, most recently launching passenger and ramp handling services at London Gatwick Airport (May 2015). dnata UK now has ground and cargo handling capabilities at London’s Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports as well as cargo handling services at Birmingham, Glasgow, Nottingham East Midland and Newcastle, and facilitates the movement of cargo through 17 regional airports with its intra-airport trucking operation. 

dnata UK’s fast-paced growth and commitment to service excellence has won the company a string of awards and was most recently named Best Air Cargo Terminal Operator – Europe, at the 2015 Asian Freight, Logistics and Supply Chain (AFLAS) Awards hosted by Asia Cargo News in Hong Kong. dnata was also recognised as ‘Ground Handler of the Year’ for the second year running by Air Cargo News earlier this year. 

Delivering promises 

Morgan says dnata’s ‘Mission’ to ‘deliver the promises we make to our customers’ is a statement that “says everything we should be about”, but notes the challenge is to “make it happen every day”. Reiterating his “ground handling is not that exciting” message, Morgan says his resolve when he was handed the dnata gauntlet was to tell clients the company had the “opportunity to do something different”.

“We asked our customers what excited them and mattered to them most and the answer was ‘consistent service delivery’,”

“We asked our customers what excited them and mattered to them most and the answer was ‘consistent service delivery’,” he reveals. “They told us they valued people who engaged and communicated with them and who were passionate about delivering a service to them.” Based on this feedback, Morgan and Akhlaq were charged with the task of identifying people both inside and outside the business who had the right attitude to deliver this service, as well as the “passion, drive, energy and tenacity” to be able to take dnata forward. “It was about finding people who would live and breathe those VMVs,” says Morgan. “Once we had found those people and aligned them with the values of the brand, it was then time to do something different with dnata in the UK.”

Up close and personal

This process started with dnata putting itself in the shoes of its client. “We considered what it meant to be a cargo agent on a desk in-putting airway bill records into the ABS system or a ‘rampy’ battling the driving wind and pouring rain, wearing wet-weather gear and being told by us to tip an aircraft of bags in 35 minutes,” says Morgan. “We got our people together with our clients, introducing them to Emirates Airline staff and station management teams and then changing some of the processes for the better.” 

On the cargo side, the long-suffering truck driver was finally given the respect he was due when the brand new £100 million dnata City facility at opened its doors at Heathrow in February 2014.

“The client who gives us the business might be an airline, but the real client is his client – the truck driver,” explains Morgan. “He is the guy no one else thinks about, but we have actually built our service around this person.” 

dnata has developed an innovative IT-driven ‘Gatehouse Principle’ that’s cut-down dwell times by hours and often eliminates the need for the driver to even leave their cab, with all instructions sent to them electronically via SMS.

“If they do need to go to our reception for any reason, we greet them as if they are walking into a contemporary hotel reception to make them feel valued,” says Morgan. “Let’s not make them walk into a dirty, scruffy, dingy hole, which says to them ‘we really don’t care’.”

Respect and unity

“It’s all about creating an environment that’s there for everyone and shows respect, whether you are a cargo agent, manager or driver,” continues Morgan. The fit-out at dnata City is a good example of how clients (the airlines) based at the facility and dnata staff are treated equally.

“If our customers have horizontal grained American oak doors, then our staff have horizontal grained American oak doors, or if we give clients walnut desks, staff have walnut desks. We have done that to create a sense of unity between our staff and our customers,” Morgan adds. 

dnata city facilities also include an on-site gym and numerous café areas where fresh food and drinks can be purchased using a cash-free system. These ‘d’lite’ coffee shop adopts a stylised dnata ‘d’ motif and is decked out with other quirky branding touches – even the image of a cup of Costa coffee adorning the café wall has its froth emblazoned with the brand’s signature ‘d’.

“We want to make our staff feel good and the effort we have made creating a pleasant working environment reflects the respect we have for our workforce,” says Morgan. 

“It’s all about creating an environment that’s there for everyone and shows respect, whether you are a cargo agent, manager or driver,”

Power to the people

“I felt respected from the very moment I joined dnata,” says Myriam Boufersen, a Lead Agent at dnata city’s Unit 3 and a voluntary facilitator of dnata’s new innovative Behavioural Accident Prevention Process (BAPP) – a workplace-led initiative designed to identify exposures and potential barriers to safe behaviour. “I was trusted and given a chance to show my potential.” This culture of respect has been applied to the roll out of BAPP, with staff at grass roots level driving the initiative – a move Boufersen describes as a “big leap of faith” by dnata management. “We are in a society where there is such a mosaic of cultures and if you don’t respect one another we will never have solidarity,” she says. “There are already a few safety improvements [since BAPP was introduced] we have identified, plus staff morale has been boosted.”

Billie Jean Bellfield, Operational Support Manager at dnata City, says her opinions “counted from the start”. “From the moment I joined dnata I was encouraged to make my own decisions and to work out how we could create a better experience for our customers.” It was Bellfield’s hard work and commitment to providing service excellence that saw her play a major role in researching and rolling out the aforementioned ‘Gatehouse Principle’ at dnata City. “It’s a process we keep evolving to make even more fluid and I have been empowered to help drive this forward,” she says.

At Gatwick, Passenger Services Manager Karen Thompson has put together a passenger services team that is already the “most admired” at the London airport, according to dnata’s head of projects Andrew Saunders. “From day one Karen has worked hard to ‘deliver the promises our customers make’,” he stresses.

That client is Emirates Airline, which dnata took over ground handling for on May 11 this year. So impressed are passengers and Gatwick staff with the passenger service team’s presentation, “from their big smiles and dnata welcome, to their immaculate uniforms and well-groomed appearance”, that Thompson is already receiving CVs from would-be recruits by the day. 

“Working for the dnata passenger services team has become an aspiration,” she says, “because our team are custodians of our values – respect and customer-service driven.”

It’s a similar story at Manchester Airport where Business Manager Pippa Kavaney set up the new ground-handling operation in October last year (2014), which has not only impressed the airport authorities with the high standards it has set, but grabbed the attention of onlookers who are now “keen to work for dnata”. Kavaney’s success strategy was to build a close-knit team who even divided themselves into three groups named ‘Vision’, ‘Mission’ and ‘Values’ and by taking part in work-related and social team-bonding experiences, have achieved high safety and service standards through “effective communication”. “All of the staff have pride and respect, because we show them respect – the ramp guys even clean their on environment, which is unheard of,” says Kavaney. “Manchester Airport operations have been a success because of the this team spirit.” 

Collaboration counts

Looking back over the past two-and-a-half years, Morgan says it’s not been a matter of “tearing up the plan and starting again”, but finessing it, because “there aren’t that many ways to turn an aircraft around or process a piece of cargo”. “The only differentiator is in attitude and delivery,” he says.“That’s how you set yourself apart.” 

When quizzed on dnata’s biggest achievement during his tenure, Morgan replies, “it’s like being asked to pick your favourite child – they are all different but you love them all”. He cites dnata City as an “absolute triumph” and a facility that’s now “revered around the world”, and also notes how the dnata team built up a regional cargo network overnight, opening six locations in one day on April 1, 2014. “It was a brilliant success and it was all down to the people involved,” he says. “So I think if I had to pick my absolute favourite child, it’s the people - it’s the team at dnata. That’s what makes it worthwhile.” 

Morgan’s goal now is “to do more of it”, with plans afoot to open at least one more cargo warehouse at Heathrow and to replicate dnata City at Manchester Airport. In this respect it’s crucial dnata continues to adopt the collaborative approach that has been integral to its success, encompassing staff, clients, and their clients.

“When we work in partnership with an airport we explain how in a small way we can make them special,” says Morgan. “In the case of Manchester Airport and its presence on the international stage, building a dnata City demonstrates Manchester is moving forward and being different.” “We cannot operate in splendid isolation and an airport is as important as a client. “The passenger experience is key too; they might not ever know us because when we do our job well, no one notices. In that respect we are a silent achiever.”

About dnata

dnata is one of the world’s largest air services providers. Established in 1959, the company ensures the aviation industry operates smoothly and efficiently in 129 airports. Offering ground handling, cargo, travel, and flight catering services in 84 countries across six continents, dnata is a trusted partner for over 400 airline customers around the world. Each day, the company handles over 1,700 flights, carries over 7,700 tonnes of cargo, assists over 235,000 passengers, books over 19,000 hotel stays, and uplifts over 320,000 meals.

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