In a series of articles our author Mark Grinsted, a true industry veteran, is critically assessing the state of the cargo industry. So far, he has put six topics under his magnifying glass: disruptions in airfreight, rate structures, surcharges, reliability, documentation, and the ritual of price adjustments. In today’s CFG issue, he takes a critical look at road feeder services.
Users are cordially invited to send their inputs and post comments or make suggestions for additional cargo themes worth evaluating to share with our worldwide readership.
Do you still drive a diesel car? You should be ashamed of yourself! You say it consumes less fuel (not so long ago this was an important ecological aspect, remember?), and emits less climate-changing greenhouse gases? Totally irrelevant now. You say it is the newest Euro 6 clean diesel, producing only a fraction of the pollution generated by diesels 10 years ago? Who cares! Diesel is evil. Period. End of the discussion. As we see, public opinion can change very quickly and, some may say, very irrationally. Two years ago, no car manufacturer could have foreseen the shit-storm that was to be unleashed on them. Such attacks tend to come from totally unexpected quarters.
What about us in our airfreight industry? Like diesels, modern aircraft are meanwhile “cleaner” and quieter than 10-20 years ago. But nevertheless, the airline industry as a whole remains a constant target of ecological attacks: Huge consumption of non-sustainable fossil fuels, CO2, air pollution, especially in the sensitive upper atmosphere, and, of course, noise pollution. But, fortunately for us in cargo, the airline industry is generally seen from the passenger side, and since even the most ardent ecologists want to fly to their holiday resorts (or to climate-saving conferences in some remote corner of the world) the industry has, touch wood, up to now somehow been able to survive these attacks.
Cargo skeletons in the cupboard?
At the same time, our air cargo industry continues the thrive, hidden away from the public eye. We cargo people in the airfreight industry know very well from talking about our work to friends and relations how little awareness there is in the general public about how big our industry really is. Let’s hope it remains that way! Still, we should ask ourselves whether we really have no skeletons in the cupboard, which may suddenly come alive, turn public opinion against us and threaten our industry - as is happening with the auto industry. And indeed, we in air cargo should know the danger: This has happened to us before, not so long ago, with the anti-trust investigations. One potential threat now could be trucking.
The uninformed public would ask what trucking has to do with airfreight; airfreight, as the name implies, flies. The shipper or forwarder brings it to the airport, and then it flies. On arrival at destination the consignee sends a truck to the airport to collect it. In the early days of our industry this was generally true. But, in order to be competitive, airlines soon started accepting cargo at airports which they did not serve or selling cargo to destinations they did not fly to. This meant that they started organising trucking themselves under their own responsibility as part of the airfreight transportation between origin and destination as shown on the AWB.
IATA Resolution 507b
IATA, who in those days still had a say in the airfreight business, introduced the IATA Resolution 507b as a legal framework for such trucking. Resolution 507b specifies that an air carrier is permitted to replace existing air connections by a truck at the commencement or end of the route under certain, specifically mentioned, conditions, such as: Lack of capacity, dimensions not loadable, undue delay or danger of missed connection. And Resolution 507b only permits trucking within the country of origin or destination or between the country of origin or destination and adjacent countries.
None of these conditions play any part in today’s every-day practice. Huge amounts of cargo are trucked, for example, from Italy to Frankfurt or Amsterdam, which are certainly not adjacent countries, by carriers who offer no air transportation at all on these routes. A truck leg between two flights is also not covered by 507b, but also happens, for example a flight Greece-Frankfurt, truck Frankfurt Munich and then a flight from Munich to a Far East destination.
Hundreds of trucks
Meanwhile trucking has become a major part of our airfreight business. Recently one European carrier proudly announced that they had had 64 trucks from Frankfurt just over one weekend. Let’s hope no-one ever tries to estimate the hundreds of airline trucks, especially at weekends, delivering and collecting cargo at all major European airfreight hubs, whether it be Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Amsterdam or Paris. Very few of these actually operate within the framework of IATA resolution 507b, but we all turn a blind eye to this normal practice, just as the car manufacturers found creative ways of getting around the legal pollution limits.
There was a time when, for example, Lufthansa had a regular network of European and domestic German nightly freighters. Who remembers the “Quick-Change” B737 and B727 aircraft which flew passengers during the day, and where the seats were removed in the evening to fly cargo on short-haul routes in the night. Night curfews stopped all this, of course, but it would be interesting to compare the total ecological footprint of moving 15 tons from Milan to Frankfurt by air and by truck. Rail transportation is also an option, of course, once tried long ago but quickly discarded. As far as direct costs are concerned, the truck wins of course, but this may have to do with the fact that the use of the roads is subsidised (despite the truck toll in Germany) while airports have to pay for themselves. There certainly needs to be more research and discussion about whether the increasing use of airline-trucking is sustainable and makes sense. Should we continue along this path or start looking for better alternatives?
Crisscrossing Trucking Networks
One aspect appears especially critical, and that is when, for example, German-origin cargo is trucked, say, from Frankfurt to Paris to fly to China, while at the same cargo is being trucked from Paris to Frankfurt, also to fly to China. What prevents the German-origin cargo being flown from Frankfurt and the French-origin cargo being flown from Paris? This would certainly make more sense from an ecological point of view.
The reason is of course the rate policy of the airlines. Rather than reducing the rates in their own home market, they try to keep these rates high, while at the same time offering cut-prices rates for cargo originating outside their home market. The fact that the cost of trucking is included in the rate, and, as such, is often invisible to the sales staff who determine the rates, adds to this effect, leading to ever-increasing tonnages of airfreight crisscrossing the European continent, blocking the roads and polluting the environment.
Trucking is an integral part of airfreight, but a greater awareness of the ecological effects would be good for the environment now, and possibly avoid unexpected scandals later. We don’t want to sink as low in public opinion as the car manufacturers!