Any new startup is going to have its challenges. Put that startup in an airport, add in updated surfaces, staff reductions and increased security brought on by Sept. 11, and there is a whole new level of complexity that some building service contractors might not have been able to handle. But UNICCO Service Corp., a Boston-based facility services provider, seems to have taken the job in stride, according to Eli Mizrahi, manager of facilities contracts management at Miami International Airport (MIA) in Miami.

The beginning of UNICCO Service Corp.’s contract at MIA was fairly standard — the prior contractor’s term had expired, and in January of 2001, UNICCO took over 2.8 million of the airport’s

approximately 4 million square feet. Site manager Jack Deem found vague specifications, poorly maintained carpets and many inefficiencies, all typical problems BSCs face in new accounts.

What helped his transition was having a willing partner in Mizrahi. He is the liaison between Deem and the airport’s governing bodies. Mizrahi’s many contacts throughout the system allowed him to quickly push through training, restoration and other improvements UNICCO hoped to institute.

Starting from scratch
To begin with, there were no task-frequency specifications or other quantifiable benchmarks for Deem; only a vague, general “level of cleanliness” was in the contract.

To remedy this, he worked with an industrial engineer to determine a task-frequency standard and cleaning times. Right away, they determined their original workloading was inefficient, and immediately cut 10 percent of the FTEs.

“One of the challenges is trying to harmonize expectations of quality of service with a workforce not prepared to perform,” says Mizrahi. “By working with UNICCO and a subcontractor, we implemented a program with higher expectations than those of our prior operator.”

No operational element was overlooked, and no potential partner ignored. Training became of paramount importance, so Mizrahi turned to UNICCO’s supplier for a “living better though chemistry” program, to train workers on proper product use. “Train-the-trainer” seminars began, so supervisors could properly educate their employees.

In addition to increasing their efficiency, some of the cleaning procedures — and surfaces — changed during the start-up phase.

When UNICCO took over the contract, 90 percent of the floor was carpeted. The carpet had been maintained nightly with bonnet cleaning; UNICCO switched to extraction.

Some of the carpet also was removed and workers discovered terrazzo flooring in the lobby. The terrazzo, says Mizrahi, was in good shape but buried under layers of “goop.” Workers had to grind the adhesive off and completely refinish the floor. Many of the cleaning staff also had never done hard-floor care and required additional training, says Deem. But, over time, the surfaces began to look good.

Several months into the contract, operations seemed to be smooth.

“We’ve gone through the honeymoon, and now we continually check the relationship and find out where we need to be,” Deem said at the time.

A surprising source of goodwill during the start-up was the labor union, Teamsters Local 390.

“They’ve been very good,” Mizrahi says. “They’ve endorsed the education, and the creation of a safer workplace and a happier work force. We could not have achieved this level of performance without them.”

Gerry Pape, Local 390 president, concurs.

“The previous [contractor] didn’t care about their employees — there was no good training and unsafe storage,” she says. “We appreciated [UNICCO’s] education and safety record.”

New challenges
Nine months after the initial start-up, ripple effects from terrorist attacks on the U.S. hit home for Mizrahi and Deem. While their first priorities included ensuring the safety of their workers and loved ones, there also came a pressing question: What now?

“Sept. 11 created a paradigm — the whole aviation system shut down. There needed to be a reduction in workforce to replicate the reduction in passenger load,” Mizrahi says.

But, in a quirk of timing, UNICCO was ready to implement changes that would have increased productivity with fewer people anyway.

The focus on higher productivity through education allowed a 30 percent reduction in FTEs — reductions that might have taken place in the absence of a mandate.

Part-time workers and volunteers were let go first, then layoffs were determined by seniority, Deem explains.

“We were able to work with the union by explaining that the work content of the remaining positions was within industry standards,” he says. Changes in work frequency and improved equipment helped reduce the need for personnel.

The union local was concerned with keeping as many people on the job as possible within the new budget constraints. While Pape doesn’t agree with UNICCO’s use of “cleaning times” to determine standards, she says the company, overall, did a satisfactory job with the reductions.

In the months since Sept. 11, security has been the main focus for the Miami airport operations. Although the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) hasn’t yet taken over screening at MIA, the agency has been working with the airport — including the cleaning department — to ensure a smooth transition. Due to security reasons, the details of the transition can’t be made public, says Deem. But he can say that other than some small inconveniences, his operations haven’t been burdened by the new safety measures — something many cleaning professionals were worried about following the terror attacks.

Handling trash is one of those areas affected by security. The company removes trash from various areas of the airport, but the collection receptacles are located in a secure area.

“We’ve had to take trash and secure it in one area, then put it in locking carts to transport it through security,” Deem says.

Screening employees has become tighter as well.

“As we’ve tried to call people back from layoff, the clearance process has taken longer, even though they’ve worked here before,” Deem explains.

Even innocent problems, such as a different transliteration of a name on a passport versus a driver’s license, can prolong the background-check process.

With the TSA poised to take over airport security nationwide by this November, and other uncertainties in both the political arena and air-travel climate, nobody is sure what the future holds for people like Deem and Mizrahi. But they believe partnership will help ease the confusion.

“If you look at UNICCO and its evolution, the way it’s been successful is by partnering,” Deem says. “Our 300 or 400 extra sets of eyes in the airport have been recognized as a big component of the security program.”

“Every employee at the airport has a responsibility; the janitorial company must report suspicious activities,” Mizrahi says. He calls this “an enlightened look at emptying trash.”

In coming months, UNICCO intends to step up its cooperation with the TSA, including increasing policing, and adjusting carpet care and waste-receptacle placement around security checkpoints to more accurately reflect passenger traffic patterns.

And Deem and Mizrahi even are able to get back to one of their pre-Sept. 11 objectives: Making the airport clean and aesthetically pleasing. A program, still in development, to help improve the appearance of the airport’s exterior areas, is next on the horizon.

Restoring public art not quite a “Walk on the Beach”
Miami International Airport (MIA) is not just any airport. It is a gateway to the world and helps define southern Florida and Miami/Dade county. Both the county and airport management recognize this and, as part of a countywide initiative, try to project Miami’s unique personality through public art. The airport, working with Miami/Dade Art in Public Places (AiPP), commissioned one of the most spectacular, and certainly the largest artwork at MIA, called “A Walk on the Beach” by Michele Oka Doner. It is a three-phase bronze, terrazzo and mother-of-pearl floor in Concourse A that, when completed, will be almost two miles long. The first two phases, completed in 1995, are three-quarters of a mile long and have seen wear from millions of passengers. When UNICCO took over the cleaning contract and conducted its facilities audit, site manager Jack Deem and MIA contract manager Eli Mizrahi determined that “A Walk on the Beach” needed refurbishment.

Although the project was part of UNICCO’s normal facilities services contract and did not get special funding, UNICCO did not approach it as just another strip and reseal job. Working closely with MIA management and AiPP, UNICCO workers began to experiment with a small test area. They discovered that the bronze inlays presented challenges. First, since the bronze was hand set, it was not absolutely level with the terrazzo matrix; second, the surface density of the bronze and terrazzo were different; and finally, the new high-gloss, low-slip sealant chosen for the job caused the bronze to oxidize and turn green.

UNICCO contacted the company’s flooring product supplier. AiPP provided a bronze sample that the supplier’s laboratories used to test several of their floor finishes. They then found the right combination of waxes for the mother-of-pearl, terrazzo, bronze combination floor. Once the proper chemicals were determined, mechanical procedures became academic; UNICCO selected a ride-on burnisher, to be used daily, as the tool of choice.

Once all of the technical challenges were met, UNICCO was able to tackle the entire three-quarter-mile of floor at night when traffic was low.

The project resulted in a refreshed public art piece and happy clients. “UNICCO went the extra mile, which is important because this is a major piece for us and for everyone who uses the airport,” says Ivan Rodriguez, director of AiPP.

“This was a major project that required close management and coordination between MIA and UNICCO,” says Mizrahi. “Together, we brought the necessary technical expertise and sensitivity in researching and restoring this important public work of art.”

— by Jack Deem