Many airlines subcontract ground handling to an airport or a handling agent, or even to another airline. Ground handling addresses the many service requirements of a passenger aircraft between the time it arrives at a terminal gate and the time it departs on its next flight. Speed, efficiency, and accuracy are important in ground handling services in order to minimize the turnaround time (the time during which the aircraft must remain parked at the gate).
Airlines with less-frequent service or fewer resources at a particular location sometimes subcontract ground handling or on-call aircraft maintenance to another airline, as it is a short-term cheaper alternative to setting up its own ground handling or maintenance capabilities.
Airlines may participate in an industry-standard Mutual Assistance Ground Service Agreement (MAGSA). The MAGSA is published by the Air Transport Association (the current version is from 1981) and is used by airlines to assess prices for maintenance and support to aircraft at so-called MAGSA Rates, which are updated annually based on changes in the U.S. Producer Price Index. Airlines may also contract for ground handling services under the terms of a Standard Ground Handling Agreement (SGHA) that is updated and re-published from time to time by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the current version is from January 2008. Airlines may also contract for ground handling services under non-standard terms.
Most ground services are not directly related to the actual flying of the aircraft, and instead involve other tasks. The major categories of ground handling services are described below.
These services ensure passenger comfort. They include such tasks as cleaning the passenger cabin and replenishment of on-board consumables or washable items such as soap, pillows, tissues, blankets, etc.
Catering includes the unloading of unused food and drink from the aircraft, and the loading of fresh food and drink for passengers and crew. Airline meals are typically delivered in trolleys. The empty or trash-filled trolley(s) from the previous flight is replaced by a fresh one. Meals are prepared mostly on the ground in order to minimize the amount of preparation (apart from chilling or reheating) required in the air.
The following companies are some, which airline parent company's own, have owned, or have outsourced and divested, but still continue to provide airline catering to the world's airlines.
Cathay Pacific's Cathay Pacific Catering Services
LSG Sky Chefs
A British Airways aircraft being refueled.
Pushback tractor and a ground power unit.
This includes services on the ramp or apron, such as:
Guiding the aircraft into and out of the parking position (by way of Aircraft marshalling),
Towing with pushback tractors
Water cartage (to refill fresh water tanks)
Air conditioning (more common for smaller aircraft)
Airstart units (for starting engines)
Luggage handling, usually by means of beltloaders and baggage carts
Air cargo handling, usually by means of cargo dollies, and cargo loaders
Refueling, which may be done with a refueling tanker truck or refuelling pumper
Ground power (so that engines need not be running to provide aircraft power on the ground)
Passenger stairs (used instead of an aerobridge or airstairs, some budget airlines use both to improve turnaround speed)
Wheelchair lifts, if required
Hydraulic mules (units that provide hydraulic power to an aircraft externally)
This includes services inside the airport terminal such as:
Providing check-in counter services for the passengers departing on the customer airlines.
Providing Gate arrival and departure services. The agents are required to meet a flight on arrival as well as provide departure services including boarding passengers, closing the flight, etc.
Staffing the Transfer Counters, Customer Service Counters, Airline Lounges,
Field Operation Service
This service dispatches the aircraft, maintains communication with the rest of the airline operation at the airport and with Air Traffic Control.