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Groundhandling covers a wide variety of services for airlines delivered at airports in support of the operation of air services. It includes not only highly technical services such as maintenance, fuel and oil services and freight handling, but also services which are essential to passengers' safety and comfort, such as passenger check-in, catering, baggage handling and surface transport at the airport.

The market in groundhandling services is covered by the Directive 96/67/EC dating from October 1996 which gradually opened up the services to competition. This was necessary since the checking-in of passengers, baggage handling, the provision of catering services, etc. used to be a monopoly at many EU airports, and many airlines complained about the relatively high prices for the services provided and sub-optimal efficiency and service quality.

The Directive essentially stipulates that at the larger EU airports access to the market by suppliers of groundhandling services is free but that for certain categories of services (baggage handling, ramp handling, fuel and oil handling, freight and mail handling) the Member State may limit the number of suppliers to no fewer than two for each category of service. In case of such limitations at least one of these suppliers has to be independent of the airport or the dominant airline at that airport. Similar provisions exist with regard to self-handling, which means that airlines provide the services in question for themselves: access is essentially free but for certain categories of services the Member State may limit the number of self-handling airlines to no fewer than two airlines.

Regulatory intervention in the field of groundhandling aims to improve the quality of service provided at airports while also ensuring that airports remain competitive .

Refuelling is part of groundhandling servicesAccording to various evaluations of the Directive by the Commission, the Directive has achieved its main desired objectives on opening access to the groundhandling market and led to increasingly dynamic groundhandling markets. However, the evaluations have also shown that the current legal framework is not sufficient. Groundhandling services are not efficient enough due to barriers to entry and expansion. Moreover, the overall quality of groundhandling services has not kept up with evolving needs in terms of reliability, resilience, safety, security and environmental performance.

Air traffic has grown enormously since the Directive was put in place. Airport congestion and capacity constraints are a growing concern: a single disruption at one airport can have a large impact on the entire EU airports network. At the same time, Europe is in the process of reforming its air traffic control systems in order to improve the performance of air traffic management. This has in turn focussed attention on the performance of airports, as problems such as turning around aircraft are the source of 70% of the delay suffered by flights in Europe (Performance Review Commission). The European Commission therefore considers that it is time to revisit the Directive and amend it so that Europe's airports are better equipped to tackle the quality issues which are holding back the performance of the aviation network. These issues were made particularly apparent during the severe weather disruptions in November and December 2010.


The new proposals included in the Airport Package adopted by the Commission on 1st December 2011

The aim of the Commission proposals is to improve the efficiency and quality of services offered at EU airports by ensuring better coordination of operations at airports and by enlarging airlines' choice of handlers available whilst at the same time protecting the employment rights of groundhandling workers.

The new proposals on groundhandling will include key measures to:

  • Ensure that airlines have an increased choice of groundhandling solutions at EU airports. The proposals introduce full opening of the self-handling market for airlines. At the same time they will increase the minimum number of service providers (in restricted services) from two to three at large airports.
  • Give airports more control over the co-ordination of groundhandling services. Establish a new role for the airport managing body as "ground co-ordinator" of ground services (including by setting minimum quality standards). That means that airports are tasked with the proper co-ordination of groundhandling within an airport. And most importantly they have the tools to establish minimum quality standards to be respected by all groundhandlers at their airport.  In addition the proposals will clarify rules for subcontracting.
  • The proposals will clarify the legal framework for training and transfer of staff.  Groundhandling is a very labour intensive industry (labour accounts for 65%-80% of the costs). High quality, well trained staff is essential to maintain the safety and security of groundhandling services, as well as to ensure quality services.  To this end, the new proposals include provisions to strengthen the training and stable employment conditions of staff, notably, by:
    • Introducing a new possibility for Member States to impose a requirement on companies that win groundhandling contracts in restricted markets to transfer the staff from the previous contract holder with their full existing conditions
    • Establishing compulsory minimum training for staff.

 In addition, the proposals will:

  • Strengthen the groundhandling market via the mutual recognition of national approvals for groundhandlers issued by Member States. In other words, an approval issued in one Member State would entitle a handler to provide services in a different Member State. 'Mutual recognition' is a standard mechanism used in the European single market to break down barriers to providing services across borders;
  • introduce greater transparency on how airlines (and their handlers) are charged for airport 'centralised infrastructures' (for example, fees charged by the airport for the use of baggage processing systems) and under which conditions airports themselves can provide groundhandling services. This is to create a more level playing field to allow independent handlers to compete more effectively.