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In 1982 I left British Airways Helicopters and became employed by British Caledonian Airways at Gatwick. I remained Manager of the Gatwick/Heathrow Airlink* and was asked to set up a specialised ground handling unit for the small aircraft operated by the various commuter airlines. These airlines, such as Brymon, Genair, Jersey Airlines and British Air Ferries, provided vital feeder services to Gatwick from some of the smaller airports in the British Isles and northern France. Their passengers consisted of point-to-point, e.g. those wishing to travel between Plymouth and London but, of great importance to BCal and other carriers, those wishing to include long haul in their itineraries.
*I was also shared with Bob Macleod, Managing Director of British Caledonian Helicopters. I was checked out by their training staff on one of their S61N helicopters at Aberdeen and also renewed my instrument rating on the familiar, BAH simulator. However, I never flew an operational sortie for BCHL. Bob and I did have some interesting visits to such locations as Hong Kong, Macau, New York and the Bahamas plus a visit by myself to Lagos, all to study the potential for helicopter scheduled services in these places. The visit to New York was particularly interesting. Resorts International, big-time casino operators, wanted a service connecting their casinos in Atlantic City to New York. I attended a meeting with some 20 officials, mostly from the FAA, to discuss the project which was entirely feasible. Resorts International invited me to set up and manage the service but having just received an appointment by BCal as Manager Domestic Operations, I declined. The service did go ahead.
The ground handling problems facing these operators of small aircraft were many and varied. Gatwick Airport Ltd did not want them occupying a pier served stand as this could be to the detriment of utilisation by a much larger aircraft which could also use the air jetty. The crew of a 20 seat aircraft calling BCal Operations for provisions for a complement of 20 would be somewhat different to victualling a DC10! The commuter airlines wanted not only specialised dedicated ground handling but also someone in BCal to call upon for access to all other services such as interline ticketing expertise, sales and marketing. I became that link. It opened up a whole new and interesting experience.
Setting up the specialised commuter handling unit was a manager’s dream. I was given access to the large pool of staff of Derek Epps, Manager Passenger Handling for BCal at Gatwick. Positions for staff and supervisors were advertised and interviews held. I was able to select the whole team of 12 and what a special group they were! The unit was located well clear of the terminal complex at Gatwick and in a Portakabin. Passengers were transported by coach between terminal and the commuter airlines handling unit.
The methodology of handling was worked out with the supervisors and the unit quickly became operational. It soon proved its worth and its popularity soared. Compliments were many and I had to give the credit to where it belonged – to the supervisors and staff. These young men and women took to their new role like a duck to water and I found my intervention was rarely necessary and then only to facilitate additional resources.
It began operations with aircraft up to around 20 passenger seats but then other operators with Fokker Friendships and even Viscounts wanted to move to the unit. The “Playpen” as it was nicknamed, had to be enlarged and became a very busy area. The staff, quite rightly, revelled in their success.
In a significant development, in order to increase synergy, BCal decided to integrate BCal Commuter Services into its UK Short-Haul services. These were operated entirely by BAC-III aircraft providing feed to Gatwick from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and Jersey. A small ground handling unit at Prestwick was included, catering for Atlantic Long-Haul charter services. Richard Havers was appointed General Manager Domestic Operations, Arthur Jamieson as Marketing Manager with myself as Manager Domestic Operations. My mixed bag of operational staff now included the passenger handling staff at the five outstations mentioned above but not those at Gatwick who remained under the Gatwick terminal management structure.
Richard was charged with making the short-haul services more profitable – they were losing some £7 million a year – his was no mean task! He began with a roadshow titled “British Caledonian Commuter Services”. This was professionally produced with a short film and dancing girls. The show was taken around the UK with invitations to travel agents to be educated on the new product comprising the Airline’s UK short-haul services combined with the several commuter airlines, each of which operated independently of BCal but with the same BCal Commuter Services livery.
Competition on short-haul was fierce with British Airways, British Midland Airways and Dan Air. One of the contests was to be the first to depart from the outstations and Air Traffic Control were given the challenge of permitting aircraft to take-off almost simultaneously. Our staff at the outstations were a very dedicated crew exhibiting great pride in the Airline and in their work.
We had an issue at Manchester where we used a third party, Servisair, for ground handling. Their service was a continual problem and there appeared to be an inability to improve. Dan Air and Monarch were also having the same challenge and so we got together and formed a new handling agency, Manchester Handling Ltd. (MHL). The three directors were Chris Ireland from Dan Air, Mack McAngus from Monarch and me from BCal. MHL became the third handling agent at Manchester alongside Servisair and British Airways. Anyone who has had anything to do with ground handling of aircraft becomes quickly aware of the challenges. Cost control is especially vital with a small complement of staff handling relatively few flights and tasked to provide an excellent service – no mean achievement when activity on an outstation can be compressed into small periods of time followed by large gaps. This is in contrast to work schedules at airports with continual activity throughout the day and a corresponding larger complement of staff. On occasion there were quite bizarre events. During one of my visits to Prestwick, a BCal DC-10 charter arrived from Canada with a full load including some 70 wheelchair passengers!
This brave experiment seemed to fizzle out when Richard Havers left to pursue a career elsewhere and after a short period. I was invited to join BCal Flight Operations in their small department concerned with Air Traffic Services.