Per aspera ad astra, the Romans used to exclaim. Today, colloquially, one would say: “our aspirations take us to the stars”. The phrase is one of the many Latin sayings
indicating that anyone who tries hard enough can reach ambitious goals.
Air freight has not learned much from the Romans, since it did not show sufficient effort in the past to leave beaten tracks and become a modern industry. Until recently, when external challenges such as Brexit, Covid-19, supply chain hiccups, and Russia’s Ukraine assault awakened the industry from its slumber.
These geopolitical challenges have boosted digitalization at an unprecedented pace. This was confirmed by panelists discussing the state of the cargo industry at an event orchestrated by the Air Cargo Club Germany (ACD) last week in Berlin. “Not long ago, it took enterprises three days to feed transport data into the electronic ATLAS customs system” [automated tariff and local customs clearance system]. “Meanwhile, it’s a matter of three hours,” illustrated Managing Director, Andreas Schroeter of Customs Support, a leading customs broker in Europe, the latest quantum leap in this sector.
The industry's rapid response to transporting masks and medical supplies during the pandemic was also praised in retrospect (catchword: preighters). But no sooner was Covid-19 off the table than the next blow came on 24FEB22: the closure of Russian airspace following Putin’s assault on Ukraine. This resulted, and still results, in detours between Europe and the Far East, elongating each trip by up to two hours. Higher fuel burn leading to reduced loading capacity of up to -20% make air transports even more expensive.
A321XLR becomes a gravedigger
In addition, the sanctions benefit Chinese carriers that continue to cross Siberian airspace, giving them a competitive advantage over their European or Japanese peers. Markus Burchard, Senior Director Sales Frankfurt, Lufthansa Cargo, pointed out this particular and, in his view, annoying aspect in intercontinental air transportation. “We still miss a level playing field,” he regretted.
Customs expert, Andreas Schroeter, spoke of a widening rift between passenger and cargo flights. “The current combination model has passed its peak,” he exclaimed. The role of gravediggers is assumed by aircraft such as the Airbus A321XLR, capable of flying long distances nonstop, making transfers at crowded hubs redundant. “In passenger, we will see more decentralized nonstop flights, while air cargo would also benefit. It could claim the freed slots in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or Paris CDG, for example, for its own operations.” For more details, please see this.
No staff as far as the eye can see
These were the core messages delivered by cargo experts at the ACD meet in Berlin, followed by some sobering local news, particularly concerning the ongoing shortage of personnel. This is the most urgent topic needing to be solved, confirmed panelist, Jens Oechler, Managing Director at Prime Air Cargo, a logistics service provider at the airports of Frankfurt and Berlin. “It's currently a huge challenge to find adequate staff,” he stated. According to him, the situation is aggravated by the long lead time: applicants sometimes have to undergo two to three months of training to be able to work in security-sensitive areas of an airport. Many employees in aviation became unemployed during the pandemic and now prefer to work in the retail business, for instance, which does not require shift work and is physically less stressful. “They have quit aviation and won’t come back,” Mr. Oechler concluded.
For foreign passport holders in particular, the hurdles are high: They are legally bound to show proof of work and residence over a long period of time, in some cases of up to ten years. If they fail, the authorities responsible don’t issues a working permit, Oechler criticized.
Neither he nor the other participants in the ACD meeting spotted any light at the end of the dark employment tunnel.
BER’s attractiveness increases
An encouraging message was delivered by Carmen Ruck, COO of ground handler Wisag, during a tour of BER's cargo facilities, attended by roughly 60 ACD members. Berlin Airport is becoming increasingly interesting for intercontinental carriers offering long-haul routes, for example to New York, Singapore, and so on, through Norse Atlantic Airways, to San Francisco, she pointed out. Wisag manages a 6,000 m² cargo warehouse at BER, which also houses cold storage rooms for temperature-critical shipments.
The event ended on the 15th floor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the heart of Berlin, where ACD President Christopher Stoller appointed long-time ACD Vice President and short-time President Mathias Jakobi (IATA) as honorary member. This was followed by a keynote delivered by State Secretary, Michael Theurer (Liberal Party). In his combative speech, the politician described the extremely difficult geopolitical situation, which requires massive investments in infrastructure and armed forces.
Technical solutions vs. bans
At the same time, decisions must be taken much faster and bureaucratic hurdles need to be removed wherever possible. A single airspace is needed, at least in Europe, but better worldwide. Otherwise, there would be distortions in competition, as is currently the case with Chinese airlines, which continue to cross Russia, leading to time and financial advantages over their competitors. Regarding aviation and climate change, Mr. Theurer opposed bans, and opted in favor of pragmatic technical innovations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in aviation.
Thought-provoking words applauded by the attendees. The good thing about this is that Mr. Theurer can present his entire program to his boss in person: German transport minister, Volker Wissing.
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