They are praised for being Corona Heroes – ground handling agents at airports loading and unloading so called ‘preighters’. Yet, the tribute they pay is high: Aching backs, sore arms, trembling legs – that is how many ramp agents and ground handlers feel after unloading a preighter filled with packages, piled high from floor to ceiling and weighing up to 30 kg or sometimes even more.
The cargo industry, media, medics and even politics are full of respect when it comes to uninterrupted supply chains during the pandemic, express deliveries of Personal Protective Equipment, or air transports of urgently needed tools and components to complete industrial products. A great number of these items were and still are flown on board of so-called preighters. These are passenger aircraft in two variations: either stripped of their seats and used as an additional cargo hold, or still containing their seat-rows and having boxes piled on and under those seats. However, seen from the ground handler’s perspective, these are not enviable activities. They are physically highly demanding and mostly poorly paid. Ramp agent Rayhan Ahmed of Menzies Aviation, working on the apron of London Heathrow Airport, describes these specific labor conditions that he experiences on a daily basis:
“Discharging shipments off preighters is an extremely tough job, where teamwork is key,” states Mr. Ahmed. A prerequisite for the proper functioning is forming a line of ground handling personnel, who pass parcels from one person to the next, and load them onto vehicles standing on the apron, bound for warehouses once fully loaded, he explains. After a shift, “arms are aching, backs are aching, muscles are aching, workwear is dripping with sweat; typical stress situations my colleagues and I constantly experience while carrying out our duties.”
No question, the job needs doing, but given these adverse conditions, the morale is low. This exhausting situation experienced day in, day out will probably last until the end of 2021 with temporarily installed cargo chutes being the only option to ease the burden of work to a certain extent. If not, “absences and sick notes will go up with ground handling staff quitting the job,” his thought-provoking note ends.
Physical and mental stress
Rayhan Ahmed’s concerns are not unfounded, confirms medic Doctor Michael Otto, specialist in general practice. He knows aviation from years of personal experience because, prior to starting his medical career, Dr. Otto served as flight attendant for some time. In addition to his work in his own medical practice in Lunenburg, Lower Saxony, he is one of 50 doctors flying out to Nairobi 3 or 4 times each year, to provide medical care to the 120 orphans looked after and sponsored by Cargo Human Care, a LH Cargo aid organization in Kenya, as well as to the local community there.
CFG asked him to comment on Mr. Ahmed’s critical views on preighter issues. Here is what Dr. Otto had to say: “Unlike all-cargo aircraft, preighters do not have a sophisticated loading system that limits physical stress. Every single shipment must be loaded and unloaded by hand, forming human chains. This can quickly lead to muscular overload for some ground workers involved during a single shift.”
Permanent strain makes people sick
“The mandatory wearing of face masks does not make the job any easier. Anyone who has ever passed on 10 kg sandbags in a chain as part of a dyke reinforcement project, knows what this means physically. It is almost impossible to stand this strain as long as 8 hours, day after day, week after week.”
“Therefore, from a labor viewpoint, it would be advisable to shorten the shifts and change personnel frequently, in order to avoid physical overload and mental stress. If this does not happen, sickness rates in combination with absence will most likely increase. Given the current pandemic circumstances, most people are happy to have a job. Nevertheless, enterprises should avoid overstraining their employees, both mentally and physically.”
Preighter traffic has skyrocketed since the summer, as demand for PPE and e-commerce items went through the roof. By operating passenger aircraft as preighters, airlines can generate desperately needed revenue that would otherwise fly out of the window due to the lack of travelers.
Avalanche of packages
In a statement delivered to Frankfurt’s Air Cargo Community, Patrik Tschirch, MD of ground handler LUG (FRA, HAM, MUC) mentions an additional challenge: “The 30% increase in packages – on peak days even fivefold – and the number of recipients in relation to tonnage. This results in an enormous shift from transfer cargo to import volumes,” with shipments staying where they arrived, or being fed to their final destinations by truck.
There have been times this summer, where dozens of preighters descended upon Frankfurt Airport, including some airlines that hardly anyone had heard of before. Upon arrival, some of these airlines were unable to name their ground handler, as urgency led to certain details being over-looked. In a concerted action of the agents present in Frankfurt, “we managed to unload the planes thanks to the very flexible ground staff and the cooperation of all parties involved,” Joachim von Winning, MD of the Air Cargo Community Frankfurt, emphasizes.
Job accomplished, yet at the time no one referred to them as Corona Heroes - the label given medical staff, hospital personnel, bus drivers, salespeople at stores, et alia. Cargo handlers and ground staff at airports are the ones who keep the aviation and cargo industry functioning, thus ensuring the world’s supply chains are kept running, despite the enormous workload they have to shoulder. Reason enough to honor them and grant them a high rank in the list of Corona Heroes!
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