From zero to hero and back to nearly zero: Road feeder services experienced an unprecedented image change within a few weeks: Until March they were commonly considered as being noisy, stinky and an obstacle on the streets. Then came corona and the wind turned overnight. Suddenly, truck drivers and their employers became heroes who guaranteed the supply of vital goods such as PPE and foodstuff. But this boost of reputation didn’t last for long.
Although road feeder services are still considered being system relevant, they are no longer applauded by the broad public. The markets in Europe, North America and other regions are largely supplied with Personal Protective Equipment and hygiene goods, so that the road transport of these items from their arrival at airports to their final destinations are not paid much attention to any longer. This is similar to the situation as if someone had pressed the reset button. “Meanwhile, many people regard trucking as they always have - as a dirty, noisy and annoying business, molesting car drivers and polluting the environment,” notes Hendrik Bender.
“Heroes of everyday life,” a short feeling of joy
The executive of the logistics company Sovereign Speed described the rapid rise and fall of this transport sector’s reputation very vividly at a conference organized by Frankfurt’s Air Cargo Community last Wednesday and Thursday. As a sidenote, it is worth to mention that the event was the first of its kind since the outbreak of corona, i.e. real and not virtual, attended by roughly 100 members of the cargo industry.
“In public, we were admired as kind of saviors of Europe,” he states. Politicians and media commentators unanimously called us “heroes of everyday life,” Mr. Bender recalls the unexpected and unprecedented appreciation his company and the entire road feeder sector received right after the outbreak of the pandemic. Due to the urgency and the high demand/supply discrepancies, his company operated at full capacity 24/7 keeping Sovereign Speed’s trans-European overnight network running despite the shutdowns in many EU countries caused by the pandemic.
Truckers were denied basic services
However, when the “heroes” stopped their vehicles at service stations or at restaurants lining European motorways, and that’s the sad side of the story, they were treated as if they had the plague, Mr. Bender recalls. The personnel denied them using the restrooms or sanitary facilities for fear of Covid-19 infection. Similarly at airports terminal where operators forbid truckers to enter their facilities for washing their hands or to refresh themselves after unloading their shipments, following exhausting rides covering long distances. In other words, most drivers were treated like lepers even by their clients, a reaction that in Bender's opinion is inhumane.
But there were exceptions. For example, Frankfurt Airport operator Fraport immediately installed sanitary facilities when alike complaints came to their ears. The local forwarding association confirmed this service rendered by Fraport Cargo at the airport’s Cargo City South where most ground handlers, freight forwarders and cargo carriers operate warehouses as does Fraport Cargo itself.
Worsened payment terms will lead to insolvencies
Some road feeder companies also became active on their own. Sovereign Speed has provided apartments for drivers at its 14 stations spread across Europe, enabling them to sleep, relax, take a shower, or wash themselves. In addition, a crisis management team was activated under the leadership of Hendrik Bender, which ensured that the truckers were provided with masks covering mouth and nose, disinfectants, and other hygiene products.
Touching the financial aspect, Mr. Bender refers to new payment terms tabled by contracting parties who announced remitting invoices presented by their trucking partners only after 120 days at the latest. This is almost a threefold extension of the current payment conditions. Running out of cash short term will ruin many trucking companies estimates Hendrik Bender.
“We are talking about a low-margin business that is characterized by high fixed costs, as the maintenance of a fleet of trucks is very expensive and the business sector in which road feeders operate is extremely volatile making long-term planning nearly impossible.”
Thought-provoking words from someone who knows the industry inside out.
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