CF EMEA 2019: innovation targets for air freight

From left to right: Charles Kauffman, Cargo Facts; Chris Nielen, Cargolux Airllines; Michael Steen, Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings; and Robert van de Weg, Volga-Dnepr Group.

FRANKFURT – A crowd of senior air cargo executives gathered for the first-ever Cargo Facts EMEA conference, held this year at the Westin Grand Frankfurt. During the opening session, executives with Cargolux, Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, and Volga-Dnepr Group gave delegates their perspectives on how the industry must innovate or potentially be left behind as a transportation mode.

When asked to pinpoint areas for innovation across air freight, the panelists focused on improving ground handling processes, harmonizing customs, and developing a successor to the 747 production freighter, unique for its noseloading capabilities.

Robert van de Weg, Vice President, sales and marketing, Volga-Dnepr Group (VDG), noted that in comparison to more streamlined ground handling processes in the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and particularly the United States are lagging. One potential solution for that? Carriers might “take the bull by the horns” and invest in those processes for themselves, as van de Weg noted VDG is doing at Liege Airport (LGG). Through its investment, VDG can “make sure our processes for special services handling mirror the way we treat freight on the airplanes,” he said.

Atlas Air’s Michael Steen, EVP and Chief Commercial Officer, said from his perspective, companies in the air freight industry are investing in innovation, but the “biggest impediment as an industry is a lack of harmonization on the customs side.” Steen, who is involved in IATA’s cargo committee, said the association is spending a lot of time and effort on communicating the importance of streamlined customs processes to various governments and noted that “there has been progress,” particularly in some countries including South Korea, Singapore, and The Netherlands. There are some more challenging but important areas, like Brazil, that take longer for various reasons, but Steen added, “eventually I think we can get to the position where a majority of the supply chain is integrated.”

On the equipment side, the crucial question that has loomed for some time now involves the future of the 747 freighter. When asked for a wish list of what a successor might look like, the panelists all emphasized the importance of noseloading capabilities, with Cargolux’s Chris Nielen, VP sales and marketing, EMEA, said noseloading is “very important” to the all-cargo carrier’s operations in transporting outsized cargo for oil and gas, mining, and other industries. The panelists agreed innovation is needed in offerings from Boeing and Airbus, but a lackluster response to the introduction of the 747-8F has left the manufacturers skittish.

However, now is the time for investments in innovation, Van de Weg concluded. After finally coming out of “survival mode” after earlier, more difficult years, “we need to force ourselves to put cash flow aside for innovation,” he said. “We as a company are doing that, but I think in general, you don’t see this across the industry.”