Belgium’s air cargo traffic contains double the proportion of pharma-related products compared to the European average, largely because there is a very strong pharma production cluster around Brussels.
Of course, this cargo could go to other European airports if cargo handling was not up to standard, or the route connectivity was not available. These are, therefore, key areas the airport focuses on, says Nathan De Valck, cargo account manager at Brussels Airport Company with responsibility for the airport’s pharma and perishables projects.
“We work with our local partners to improve our service for pharma handling, and we talk with airlines, together with the freight forwarders that control this pharma logistics business, to attract new flights and develop these routes. So it is really a common investment of time and effort to convince the airlines.”
De Valck will often go with forwarders to the larger shippers, partly to gain information about the shipper’s needs, but also to support the story of the forwarder that all of the links in the airport cargo handling chain have been optimised for pharma products.
He says pharma shippers have a problem at a lot of airports, in the transparency of the supply chain as the shipment goes through the airport. “It is difficult for them to make a risk assessment of the supply chain with regards to possible temperature deviations,” says De Valck.“So if there are airports in Europe that are able to show good quality at every step of the logistical chain, shippers will automatically go to these specialised airports, because the risk of their products having a temperature deviation is much lower.”
De Valck says you can have a very sophisticated freight forwarder with a dedicated warehouse, but the chain can still go wrong because of poor SOPs with the airlines or handling agent. “That is why we look at the entire platform, not only what happens airside, but also at steps in the supply chain before that,” he says.
The airport has been helping to build expertise within the local cargo community, including organising a training school in Brussels, together with IATA, providing pharma training, for example, “in how they make contracts and set up their processes; how to negotiate the SLAs; what are the specific requirements that pharma shippers are looking for? How do you build a specific dedicated pharma warehouse? What kind of infrastructure do they need? Temperature logging; dedicated acceptance checklists,” explains De Valck. “All of this kind of knowledge, this pharma mindset, is being encouraged by the airport.”
Brussels Airport is also part of IATA’s Time and Temperature Task Force. “So we really try to be at the front end of new developments, and to implement all of the new guidelines as quickly as possible.”
New GDP guidelines
These best-practice initiatives are particularly needed under the EU’s new GDP guidelines, in which the pharma shipper has the final responsibility and liability for the transport and distribution, according to the correct temperature indications of each pharmaceutical product.
“But in order to do this, he has to assess every individual step in the individual chain. And this is not easy, since there are a lot of different stakeholders involved, and it is not always very transparent or easy for the shipper to talk to every stakeholder,” says De Valck. “So we need to help the shipper to select a reliable supply chain, to come up with some kind of minimum requirement or standard that convinces them of the handling quality of our products at the airport.”
The challenges of controlling the temperature in the supply chain at every step “means that a couple of airports will probably specialise in this product type, because it is not easy to implement”, de Valck says.This specialisation has already happened to a large extent at Brussels over the last three to four years, and the new GDP certification process is an extension of this.
“If we look at the amount of freight forwarders that are consolidating their pharma shipments for the entire western European region in Brussels, this is a clear proof that we are definitely a specialised airport with regards to pharma.”
For example, at the end of last year Expeditors opened a first-line fully dedicated pharma hub at the airport, operated in partnership with Aviapartner (see photograph on page 41), while DHL Global Forwarding has built a very large forwarding facility, and Kuehne + Nagel and UTi are consolidating pharma shipments in Brussels, De Valck points out. “So it is very promising if we look at the evolution that is happening with respect to pharmaceuticals handling at Brussels.”
Investments in time and effort over many years have culminated now in a programme to get all 10,000 sqm of cool infrastructure at the airport GDP certified by the end of this year – including all 15 different companies that have this infrastructure. “It is not only forwarders, but also trucking companies and handling agents, that we are helping to get the GDP certification,” he says. “This will mean that whenever shippers use these certified stakeholders at the airport they can rest assured that their products will be handled in a GDP certified way, not only with regard to facilities and cool rooms, but also the expertise of the people and the training that they have received.”
He says IATA is also doing some excellent work, collaborating with all stakeholders that are involved in the cool chain. Finding a consensus within its task force takes time, but a lot of subjects that can make the difference for good pharma handling are being discussed and standardised.
“So those are the types of investments that we make,” De Valck says. “It is not so much in bricks and mortar; it is more in procedures and collaboration between the different stakeholders, and aligning everybody in order to offer a perfect pharma service at the airport.”
LuxairCargo achieves GDP certification
LuxairCargo last year completed a €4 million investment in its pharma and healthcare handling facilities, and its commitment to this market was further underlined in January when its facilities and processes were certified as GDP compliant. The 3,000 sqm facility within the Luxembourg handler’s 60,000 sqm existing cargo terminal includes two storage areas, separated truck docks under temperature control and 70 ULD controlled temperature cells.
Jean-Marc Reynaerts, vice-president for business development, says the €4 million figure excludes the “thousands of hours” invested in staff training. So far about 500 people have received training, from warehouse operators to management, in physical handling and the EU’s Good Distribution Practice (GDP) guidelines for handling of pharmaceuticals and life-science products, although it is a continuous process. The company intends to extend the training to all of its 1,000 employees.
Since the opening of the new pharma and healthcare centre last April, LuxairCargo has also been closely monitoring every aspect of the movement of these products, which amounted to 21,000 tonnes of cargo in the nine months to December.
“Pharmaceuticals and healthcare handling has grown to 4% of the total cargo handled in 2013 by LG Cargo, in line with expectations,” says Reynaerts. “The growth foreseen by our customers for 2014 is about 7%.”
Although he is reluctant to talk about pricing, the ability to cover the costs of investing in a multi-million euro pharmaceutical facility requires significant critical mass – something that is difficult for cargo handlers to achieve in markets where multiple cargo handlers are competing for limited cargo volumes. Since the departure of Swissport from Luxembourg airport several years ago, Luxair Cargo has been in the fortunate position of being the only cargo handling agent at the airport, allowing it to achieve a throughput of nearly 700,000 tonnes last year.
With the increased focus on cool-chain products from airlines, forwarders and the air cargo sector in general, some airports are positioning themselves as hubs for pharma and perishables traffic.
“What we have seen during 2013 is a number of airports preparing dedicated infrastructure to cope with the requirements of their major customers, but usually designated for one user,” says Reynaerts. “This is rarely an infrastructure open to all users.”
He says LuxairCargo had received the support of the market – forwarders as well as carriers, including home carrier Cargolux – in the decision process and the creation of the pharma hub.
“This was a must, to accompany customers’ commercial efforts with investment in state-of-the-art infrastructure that puts Luxembourg at the forefront on a European level, allowing them to meet the WHO and GDP requirements and benefit from a competitive advantage.”
Although the GDP system is not mandatory, revised GDP guidelines published in September 2013 allow a GDP certification process – something that LuxairCargo has worked towards along with several other stakeholders at Luxembourg airport, including, airlines, forwarders and trucking companies supported by Luxembourg’s Ministry of Economy, in order to create a full GDP handling chain at the airport. The GDP certification process ended in December, with certification from Bureau Veritas achieved in January.