Forwarders discuss Sea-Tac logistics challenges

Alaska Airlines has a brand new — well, newly converted — 737-800 freighter, but faces congestion at its hub airport.

SEATTLE — The good times keep rolling for air cargo in 2017 with month after record-setting month, but an Airforwarders Association (AfA) panel at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) last night discussed an important point: How do you deal with too much of a good thing?

“Sea-Tac’s current infrastructure wasn’t built for it to be a hub, but e-commerce is making it one,” said Jason Berry, managing director of cargo at Alaska Airlines.

Those infrastructure challenges begin long before the carriers receive the cargo, as Matt Hodson, vice president of operations with trucking company Summit NW Corp, told attendees at the AfA event. Inefficiencies at the airport leave truck drivers idling for hours, especially when the cargo is destined for a carrier that doesn’t handle its own cargo – leaving the driver to track down individual customer service agents for every airline transporting the cargo.

Once the cargo arrives at the airport, new logistics hiccups emerge as physical space is severely limited. Patrick Eaton is the general manager for Swissport Cargo Services at Sea-Tac, and acknowledged that Swissport and other ground handlers at the airport contribute to slowdowns for trucks arriving at the airport because they are trying to deal with too much cargo and too many airlines in too little space. Eaton said they handle cargo for six airlines at the airport and have had to turn away business because of those limitations.

Tom Green, senior manager for air cargo development with the Port of Seattle, expressed doubt that physical expansions at the airport are even possible because of the geographical constraints of the region. He pointed out that at Sea-Tac there are three main ground handlers – Swissport, WFS and Hanjin Global Logistics – and those three dominate the market not because of any restrictions imposed by the airport but because all ground handlers are required to use only existing space for their operations. There is an airport expansion master plan in the works, but Green noted that most of the attention in any expansion is directed toward the passenger side, “possibly at the expense of cargo.”

Reducing cargo capacity regionally would be bad news for world trade. As IATA chief economist noted, in 2015 air cargo accounted for about 35 percent of global trade by value even though it made up less than 1 percent of global trade by volume. Last night’s audience members are aware of that value, but Tom Green reminded them that the Port Commission, which decides on planning for the airport, needs to be made aware of the value airfreight brings to the region and encouraged forwarders to “go to Port Commission meetings and comment on the importance of air cargo at Sea-Tac.”

In the meantime, the logistics chain will have to become more efficient to keep up with growing traffic at Sea-Tac, and all panelists agreed that a major step toward increasing efficiency revolves around the labor-intensive and high-stakes process of screening cargo. The AfA is pushing for third-party, private sector canine screening to improve security and efficiency during the process, which Brandon Fried, executive director at the AfA, thinks “could reduce bottenecks significantly.”

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