Sam Saunders-OmniServ

Samantha Saunders, Head of Innovation & Regulatory Compliance at OmniServ, reflects on why we need to consider changing both how airport suppliers train not just staff helping passengers with reduced mobility (PRM) but also all other airport teams in order to drive an attitude change in how assistance is delivered to those who need it.

Airports are busy places – they’re also places where you’ll see high emotions, every day. If you’ve ever seen Love Actually, then you may remember that the climax of the film takes place at Heathrow, as does the epilogue. What you may not remember is Hugh Grant’s voice over at the start, where he says that whenever he feels gloomy about the world, he thinks about the arrivals hall at Heathrow, and the sheer joy and love that’s demonstrated by all the people meeting there.

That’s true – as someone who has worked in the airport industry for 35 years, I have seen my fair share of emotion, every day. Happy re-unions, sad departures, anger and frustration due to delays…

For most of us who work at an airport, these snatches of emotionally-charged energy are simply snippets in our everyday life. But for anyone involved in the delivery of passengers with reduced mobility (PRM) assistance services, we genuinely have a great opportunity to become part of someone’s life story.

I recently met two customers at Manchester Airport and assisted them through check in. Chatting to them, I discovered what their names were (John and Joyce) and that they were off to Melbourne to meet up with seven of John’s siblings for a niece’s 50th birthday. I also found out that they planned to marry in 1974, but had an argument a week before the wedding and it was all called off. They’d only re-connected six years ago, after Joyce’s daughter tracked John down on Facebook.

I felt so privileged to be just a small part of their journey.

We have hundreds of staff within OmniServ who end up a part of someone else’s journey every day. And I think we need to recognise just how important their job is, not just for OmniServ, but for the airlines and the airports they are working at every year, day after day.

Our PRM support staff can have a massive impact on the lives of the customers they help. They aren’t just interchangeable cogs in a machine: they are on the front-line, day in, day out, and they are likely to spend more one-to-one time with a customer than any check-in agent, cabin crew or other airport or airline employee.

They must deliver services cost-effectively, but also in a way that respects their customers’ dignity and makes them feel like they are being genuinely cared for.

That’s a tough ask. It is vital we help these colleagues and, indeed, our wider workforces, to understand the real significance of their roles and the positive impact they can have on each and every customer they help.

All too often, the only time we even consider them is when something goes wrong. Yet OmniServ’s PRM staff help approximately 1.8 million people every year – unfortunately, you don’t often see people taking to Twitter to say what a great experience they’ve had.

And more often than not, it’s not usually the PRM team’s fault that something goes wrong – frequently, it’s because an aircraft is late and ends up at a gate at the other end of the airport from where they’re supposed to be, or a vital piece of equipment isn’t where it should be.

In the aviation industry, there is also a misconception that the value of a role is based on the pay rate associated with it. Time and again, I hear our PRM teams referred to as ‘wheelchair pushers’ – completely ignoring the extensive training they go through, not to mention the kindness and empathy that they overwhelmingly show to the people in their care.

I think it’s time we gave them a title that better fits their hugely important role. Something like Customer Experience Executives, because, after all, they are the people who create the experience for the PRM passengers (and their families) that they are looking after. They are true brand ambassadors.

We already embarked on a journey to refresh our core values and service personality within OmniServ. The values we are now focusing on through enhanced training programmes include: Respect, Integrity, Collaboration, Innovation, Excellence and Trust.

But it’s not enough to train our PRM staff to deliver against these core values: they must infuse the whole organisation.

I also think it would do all our airport teams good to spend some time every year shadowing one of our PRM teams, so they can get a better idea of what the PRM teams deal with, and even going through some of the training they go through.

We’ve been trying this out, giving some security staff a taste of what it’s like for the PRM teams – and I think it’s fair to say it’s been a real eye opener for them.

The feedback from security staff who have gone through this cross-training has been brilliant. They’ve found it fun, they’ve found it enlightening, they’ve found it challenging and above all they’ve found it rewarding. “I feel that I’ve made a real difference today,” one member of staff said. “I will fundamentally do my job differently now,” said another.

While not necessarily safe to let untrained staff take full responsibility for PRM passengers, though – believe it or not, our ‘wheelchair pushers’ actually get trained in first aid, safety, how to help passengers who have mobility, sight or other issues, and a whole host of other elements that are key to delivering proper PRM services, I do believe that cross-training other staff members allow us to further enhance the airport experience for our customers.