Providing an airbridge service while safeguarding the wellbeing of its staff were the major challenges FedEx had to respond to with the Covid-19 outbreak. “We have always been very quick to react, but this crisis is not like any other,” says Jean Muls, FedEx VP Air Hubs Europe, also responsible for the Liege air hub.
“I think we were among the first responders to the crisis. We have always been very capable of reacting quickly in times of crisis to offer support and relief after tsunamis, earthquakes,
cyclones and the like. We are able to set up an airbridge, but always prioritize the health, safety and security of all our staff, from the pilots to the airside workers,” says Mr
“No-one has the contingency necessary for a crisis this size,” he admits. “But even then, we were among the first to provide masks and gloves apart from doctors and health workers.”
CFG: Mr Muls, what was the biggest impact of the Covid-19 crisis on ground operations?
JM: “Convincing the staff proved to be a challenge, with a rise in absenteeism threatening. People were afraid and we have never pressured anybody to come to work. People have been given the necessary tools to work from home, but of course that is not possible for hub and airside operations. We made a point of safety first for our team members. Within 2 days after lockdown, we had most of some 40 measures in place and adopted in our operations.”
“Soon the initial fear made room for pride of being part of an operation that is of vital importance in the fight against the crisis. We can rely on a lot of commitment and solidarity, and our staff has quickly realized that we had the necessary measures in place in no time.”
To comply with the recommendations regarding sanitary safety, every single aspect of the operation was scrutinized. In the offices, doors are always kept open and stairways are one-way only. In the sorting warehouse, two-men teams were substituted by single workers, having to comply with social distancing regulations. Containers for the transport of consignments brought in by road, are separated by empty containers.
A makeshift mess has been set up in the sorting hall. Planes as well as handphones and forklifts are disinfected after use and the vans for commuting staff all over the airport are limited to 2 passengers instead of 8.
CFG: Was it also necessary for FedEx to adjust its capacity and/or network to respond to the demands triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic?
JM: “We all had to face restrictions in the different airports and transport as a whole. So, it was imperative for us to get in touch with the governments, authorities, and public health departments of all these places to and from which we operate, to ask what possibilities we had and under which circumstances.”
“In Europe, there have been no big changes in our network, even if some destinations have been incorporated as stops on a longer leg. There have been, however, changes in our volumes. As belly capacity on passenger aircraft is virtually non-existent at the moment, that flux has come to us. We also see a change in the nature of the consignments, with a sharp rise in medical and hospital equipment and pharma.”
“To highlight another aspect of our operation: this 21 April, of the 218 freighter movements in Belgium, 62 were related to FedEx and its subcontractors. We see an increase of 46% of cargo flights between Asia and Europe. Normally we have 100 monthly flights on this route, today there are 146. As an illustration, we have flown in over 13 million face masks and tens of thousands of test kits to Europe.”
CFG: Were the respective European hubs individually involved to serve their traditional catchment areas, or did FedEx opt for a network-based approach?
JM: “FedEx is running a global network operation. For our intra-European business, we are – due to lockdowns – dynamically adjusting our network. The scheduled flights keep on serving their traditional hubs. The remaining 46 are ad-hoc and for those we have to weigh different factors such as the availability of slots, pilots, the proximity to the client’s location, etc.”
“We are very conscious about our role as the key player for the support of the measures that have been taken to tackle this crisis. As the medical staff is combatting this pandemic, our sector is a critical part of the second line of defense. Our responsibility is to enable them to fulfil their task in this crisis.”
CFG: What about the impact on e-commerce?
JM: “That segment has also gone up, but in this business, we are only an operator, not a platform. We are also providing support to SMEs to continue their operations by taking this opportunity to enter the e-commerce space or ramp up their online presence.”
CFG: But no longer for Amazon?
JM: “In Europe we do provide service for them in some markets, however they account for a very small fraction of our volumes.”
Marcel Schoeters in Liege
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