The launch of a cargo-only network by SWISS and Swiss WorldCargo has led to the creation of two ‘SWISS Belly Charter’ products. But continuing to link Switzerland to global supply chains and medical supplies requires considerable preparation, and the carrier’s main focus is on covering the cost of flights and ensuring the timely arrival of much-needed goods, explains Ashwin Bhat, head of cargo, Swiss International Air Lines
What have been the biggest challenges to your air cargo business and cargo handling operations from the coronavirus and the measures taken to reduce its spread?
We as SWISS and Swiss WorldCargo have begun operating a cargo-only network in addition to our reduced flight plan. Based on the impact of the Coronavirus and resultant travel restrictions, we had to quickly adjust our existing passenger network, which caused us to seek alternatives in order to continue serving existing supply chains.
In general, we can say that demand in the freight business has tended to increase for personal protection equipment (PPE) alongside reduced capacity in the markets. SWISS and Swiss WorldCargo have accordingly tried to react quickly to the changed conditions and have therefore created our new SWISS Belly Charter service to meet the demand for freight transport and thus continue to link Switzerland to global supply chains.
‘SWISS Belly Charter’
The new service, ‘SWISS Belly Charter’ comes in two versions: ‘Full Belly’ is an aircraft chartered by a single customer; ‘Charter Co-Load’ is an agreement with several customers for a full belly flight.
In order to optimise the space on the aircraft, after an operation risk evaluation and thanks to the local authorities, SWISS could load humanitarian goods in the economy seats on aircraft into Switzerland.
In our operations along with our handling agents and on the ramp, we focus on keeping social distancing guidelines, including many of our staff working in home office and/or wearing masks to keep themselves safe.
How have your responses evolved?
So far, the process has gone quite smoothly. For us, the concept of the belly charter is quite new, so we have had to move and adapt quickly. Luckily, we have great teams, which are working tirelessly on the different issues and opportunities that we are confronted with.
We want to make sure we can meet and support the needs of our different customers while also continuing to provide crucial support in bringing medicinal goods to Switzerland and continuing to export goods worldwide.
As of late April, we have carried out over 80 cargo-only flights, mostly between China and Switzerland, and shipped over 1,300 tonnes of goods between Asia and Switzerland. We have also opened a cargo-only network connecting us to different gateways around the world on a frequent basis, including: Shanghai (PVG), Beijing (PEK), Chicago (ORD), Singapore (SIN), Tokyo (TYO) and Bangkok (BKK).
Has there been any significant cooperation between stakeholders?
Historically we have a very close collaboration with our suppliers like Cargologic, Swissport, the airport of Zurich, Environtainer, Jettainer etc. and of course also with our customers. We are aware that we can only manage and handle such a crisis together.
For us it is of utmost interest to make sure we can meet the needs of our different customers while also continuing to provide this crucial support in connecting Switzerland with the world to enable trade.
What challenges and opportunities have been presented?
We have looked to respond to the demand with our cargo-only flights, as well as finding alternative ways to offer capacity, such as with loading in our cabin. Likewise, we are looking at refurbishing some of our aircraft to remove economy seats in order to add even more capacity. In this way, we are able to respond to the increased demand despite having a network that is greatly reduced from our usual offering.
These new ways of working require good preparation and profound experience, especially as our customers rely on us to provide a consistent focus on quality. The cabin load especially impacts our operations, as we must take care to load and secure all freight manually. Additionally, we need to cover and protect our seats, and store freight with additional nets. All our crews have been trained and briefed accordingly, and make sure to check during the flight that everything is secured and transported safely.
Has the increased number of healthcare-related shipments presented any particular operational challenges?
We have developed a reputation in the industry for our focus on special, care-intensive cargo, in particular many strong Swiss export goods, such as watches, valuables or specialized spare parts. Additionally, we have concentrated our focus on pharmaceutical goods and medicinal supplies, which means we are well-equipped to handle the current challenges of carrying healthcare-related shipments.
We continue to go the extra mile for our customers to ensure that the medicinal goods are transported with the highest care.
What new opportunities have arisen?
With the impact on our initial Network, based on our customers’ needs, we launched our cargo-only network and solutions in order to keep the connection of Switzerland to the global trade existing. Therefore, we had to update our offering and create a completely new product called SWISS Belly Charter.
To what extent has increased pricing on certain lanes made up for losses of capacity and demand?
Financially, the charter freight business helps to provide a very small financial support. Additionally, it allows us to continue using our fleet despite restrictions for passenger travel. However, on many of our routes we are carrying humanitarian goods – here, our aim is to provide the end customers with the needed goods in the time of crisis. Our primary focuses here are not on profit, but on ensuring that we can cover the cost of flights and ensure the timely arrival of these needed goods.
Additionally, it is not just the financial aspect. From an economic perspective, we can continue to secure Swiss industries access to international markets. We maintain the import and export of crucial goods, such as medical supplies, during a critical time period.
Handling and quality challenges
We continue to benefit from a great relationship with our ground handling partners. We are all in this together and look forward to meeting the challenges together and to continued success together.
We make sure to remain available to our customers as best as possible. Our handling times are based around our flight schedules and we make sure that our cargo is handled as best as possible despite any challenges.
At SWISS and Swiss WorldCargo we have introduced social distancing. Additionally, our staff receives masks and protection material to keep the infection risk as low as possible. Most of our office staff remain in home office.
So far we have not made any changes in the numbers of our staff, and we are not making any predictions or comments about the future.
Contingency planning and evaluation of the response
None of us expected the impact of COVID-19 to be so huge, hence all our contingency planning has had evolve along with the constantly evolving situation.
SWISS and Swiss WorldCargo have had a very quick, strong reaction to the crisis. We put an immediate focus on the safety of our staff, in keeping our costs under control and pausing projects.
With this crisis, we face a major impact to our business and similar to all other airlines worldwide, we need to tackle this situation. The global travel restrictions have put all airlines into a difficult situation.
We have created a completely new product within 1-2 weeks, which allows us to continue with our operation and being able to offer a suitable and good product to our customers.