Managing the biggest ever disruption

posted on 4th March 2021
Managing the biggest ever disruption

It’s difficult to talk about the legacy of Covid when its consequences are still at the forefront of everything we are doing, notes Barry Nassberg, group chief commercial officer for Worldwide Flight Services (WFS). But he hopes we don’t forget the flexibility and agility, innovation and ingenuity, cooperation and camaraderie shown by businesses in our industry, which have enhanced a lot of customer-supplier relationships

We remain in the biggest period of disruption I’m sure any of us have seen in our careers. The impact of Covid-19 on the aviation and handling industry has been devastating and an estimated 50% of commercial aircraft fleets remain grounded, with little certainty of when operations can, or will, resume.

Some countries have been more proactive than others in offering support to national businesses and industries, which has provided some opportunities to protect jobs and operations. However, even in countries where there has been financial aid for national carriers, governments have still failed to recognise the need to find ways to ensure business continuity for ground and cargo handlers.

There may be an assumption that once vaccines take effect and lockdown restrictions are eased, that passenger capacity will begin returning to the market with some velocity and provide much-needed stimulus to the aviation industry and, subsequently, the global economy. However, for that to happen, ground and cargo handlers need help too.
Retaining expertise and resources
At WFS, since the pandemic took hold, we have been working very hard to retain the majority of our highly trained and experienced workforce so we can be ready to support the recovery of the aviation industry and national economies as the effect of the virus subsides. If we lose this expertise and these resources, it will be months before we can re-recruit, train and accredit teams across our global network to enable our airline customers to have the reliable, safe and secure operations they and their customers expect.

It’s actually difficult to talk about the legacy of Covid when the consequences of it are still at the forefront of everything we are doing on a daily basis. We have seen a lot of focus on supply chains – and the important role of the air cargo industry within them – and a sudden realisation by governments, businesses, and consumers that the supply and demand equilibrium we have enjoyed for so long is, in fact, very fragile when all the components are unable to operate uninterrupted. So, I hope this is remembered in the long-term because it is vital to the sustainability of our industry.

Cooperation and ingenuity
I also think there has been a lot of cooperation and camaraderie between businesses in our industry, as well as innovation and ingenuity. The best examples are the way the cargo industry was at the forefront of meeting international demand for PPE, and the emergence of ‘preighters’ to replace capacity lost by the suspension of passenger operations. The way we’ve all shown flexibility and agility to support these operations has really enhanced a lot of customer-supplier relationships, and I hope we don’t forget this either.

Like every business connected to the aviation industry, we are under enormous financial pressure. We are a company with over 22,000 employees serving 270 airlines at 175 airports in 22 countries, and the pressure this brings at a time like this is enormous. While the scale of disruption from Covid is unprecedented, we have been able to draw upon our experiences of other crises, notably 9/11 and the 2008/9 global financial crisis, and benefit from some of the lessons we’ve learned. At the same time, we know we will come through this time. In many respects, the fact that the major part of WFS’ business is still cargo handling has helped us and given us a degree of resilience not afforded to some of our competitors whose core handling business largely depends on passenger operations.

Biggest priorities
Our biggest priority will always be safety and security, and this remains at the forefront of every decision we take. Whilst acting as prudently as possible in all areas of our business in terms of reducing our cost base, we have also been determined to retain strategically important investments that are essential to the future growth of our business. Some examples include our investments in technology and digitisation, including cyber security monitoring, Bluetooth tracking to improve ULD visibility and utilisation, and more self-service kiosks for truck drivers to reduce loading and unloading times and improve productivity for customers.

We have also just opened a new 250,000 tonnes capacity cargo terminal at Brussels Airport, and we’re continuing to enhance our services for handling pharmaceuticals at our 14 pharma centres across the globe, including more IATA CEIV and GDP certifications, while, in France, WFS has launched dedicated Pharma trucks from the provinces to Paris CDG to support our airline customers’ premium products. And, I am delighted to say, throughout the entire Covid period, we’ve continued to win new handling contracts and signed extended agreements with many of our existing customers.

These areas of focus will remain in 2021 and we will continue to look to make the best decisions for WFS and our customers which give us both new opportunities. Even with all the current market uncertainty, there are still many strong opportunities for growth. I also think airlines are looking to their handling partners for new ideas and innovations, and that’s something we welcome.

“I think airlines are looking to their handling partners for new ideas and innovations, and that’s something we welcome”

Barry Nassberg

Technology and digitisation will play an increasingly important role, and the lessons of Covid are likely to accelerate some projects which were previously sitting on the side-burner waiting for the right time, and money, to implement. But, of course, we’ve got to be able to fund these developments and to do that we all need to be able to operate profitably in every location because, to be most effective, many of the benefits of the technologies available are optimised by standardisation across networks – and this is also true across communities. I am particularly impressed by the initiatives we are involved in as part of the Brussels Airport community and we will most certainly be a willing partner in similar projects as they emerge across our international network.

“To be most effective, many of the benefits of the technologies available are optimised by standardisation across networks”

Barry Nassberg