Adapting to unpredictable flight schedules, lower belly cargo throughput, and handling an increasing number of ‘cargo-only’ flights with time-consuming passenger-deck loading and unloading operations has been a challenge – but one that Sheremetyevo International Airport’s Moscow Cargo has accepted and risen to, explains Mikhail Chuvilkin, first deputy general director and chief operations officer
What have been the biggest challenges – as a business and operationally? How have you responded to these challenges?
On the one hand, we are faced with a significant reduction in the number of passenger flights – associated both with restrictions and bans on international and domestic flights introduced worldwide, and with a general drop in demand for passenger transportation. On the other hand, we are witnessing a significant increase in the demand for air cargo, partly due to the growing need for prompt deliveries of medical supplies to the regions affected by the coronavirus.
The cancellation of regular passenger flights and a sharp increase in the demand for medical goods led to a shortage of delivery capacities. At Sheremetyevo International Airport in 2019, only about 30% of the airport’s freight turnover was transported in freighters, and 70% in passenger aircrafts – for cargo handled by the air freight terminal.
As a result, now, in addition to the growth in volume on cargo airline flights, such as our long-term strategic partner, AirBridgeCargo, we see an increasing number of ‘cargo-only’ flights – cargo charter flights operated on passenger aircraft. Today, the Moscow Cargo terminal regularly handles cargo-only flights of Aeroflot, Rossiya, iFly, Royal Flight, Air Astana, China Eastern, Nordwind Airlines, Pegasus Fly, Mahan Air, Uzbekistan Airways, Air Algerie, etc.
It should be noted that the increase in the number of charter flights for us, as a handling agent, means, in fact, a transition to management based on an operational rather than a seasonal schedule. It is by no means a difficult task for a terminal with a staffing of several thousand people – whose personnel handled over 75% of the total cargo and mail traffic at Sheremetyevo Airport, Russia’s largest by cargo volume, during the first quarter of 2020. However, we understand that in this time of crisis, when we are talking about the struggle to save our business, it is extremely important for the company to promptly respond to industry needs and effectively adapt to the rapidly changing market conditions.
Handling challenges of ‘cargo-only’ flights
The ramp staff of the Moscow Cargo terminal, servicing cargo-only flights, faces and deals with a number of challenges. Servicing these flights means performing a number of additional operations. First of all, we are talking about preparing the cabin: all surfaces of the cabin must be carefully covered with a protective film, and the cargo carried in the aircraft cabin must be securely fixed.
Secondly, loading or unloading the main deck of passenger aircraft is an extremely time-consuming and resource-intensive work, mainly due to the lack of the ability to at least partially automate the process. In fact, it is 100% manual labour. Moreover, each cargo-only flight is serviced according to an individual algorithm, which depends on the nature of the cargo – its quantity and dimensions, the approach to its placement in the cabin, as well as on the type of aircraft and the loading or unloading plan of the cabin agreed with the carrier. The experience of Moscow Cargo shows that maintaining handling times for cargo-only flight similar to the ones applicable to a regular passenger flight requires an average of 2.5 times more personnel.
Obviously, in such conditions it is necessary to carefully plan the number of personnel involved in the work, which is complicated by both individual service requirements and the difficultly to predict flight schedules. Coordination of most charters takes place as soon as possible. As a result, the planning and work shift scheduling of the Moscow Cargo ramp staff are now based on daily lag. It was impossible to imagine this a month ago.
Nevertheless, we are working hard to maintain a high-level customer and airline service. In our work, we are still guided by either SLA standards of partner airlines, or by Moscow Cargo internal KPIs adopted before the pandemic.
Have you had to let go of or furlough significant numbers of staff? To what extent have the various national government support initiatives helped this situation or reduce this need?
The aviation business is one of the industries most affected by the spread of the coronavirus infection. Given the global scale and the enormous losses of global civil aviation, it is difficult to find an industry enterprise that would not face the negative consequences of the crisis in the area of air transportation.
During April 2020, compared to December 2019, the number of international destinations served by Sheremetyevo Airport decreased by 52.4%, and domestic by 16.7%. At the same time, the number of international flights (arrival + departure) dropped by 96.6%, and domestic by 74.2%. Obviously, even the maximum use of freighter capacity and the launch of cargo-only flights are do not allow us to offset the shortage of carrying capacity that arose as a result of the almost complete cancellation of international and domestic passenger air traffic, nor prevent a significant reduction in cargo traffic.
To our credit, we can say that as of today, not a single employee has been laid off or furloughed at Moscow Cargo LLC. The company management decided to do everything possible to save jobs and provide financial support to employees, albeit not in full. Further steps will depend solely on the actual performance of the company. However, no matter how the situation develops, the decision to reduce staff will be considered as the very least resort and only after all other options have been exhausted.
What have you done to help protect staff?
Moscow Cargo implements a number of anti-epidemic measures and sanitary measures to ensure the safety of customers and employees and to prevent the spread of coronavirus infection. At the checkpoints of the cargo terminal, remote thermometry of all visitors and employees of the enterprise is carried out. Persons with elevated body temperature are not allowed in any area of Moscow Cargo LLC.
Dispensers for hand disinfection are installed in the terminal. Every two hours, the terminal is disinfected, including the areas of acceptance and release of cargo as well as areas for building up and breaking down operations. In order to disinfect contact items, the cleaning frequency of the client lounges, offices, eating areas, checkpoints and other areas of the terminal using disinfectants is increased. Vehicles and ground-support equipment used by the company are also regularly disinfected.
All personnel are provided with personal protective equipment and antiseptics. ‘First line’ employees who directly interact with customers or are involved in ramp and cargo handling undergo a mandatory medical examination with temperature measurement before starting their shifts and upon completion of work.
Has the changed environment meant you have had to change your charging structure – for example via cargo handling surcharges?
In our opinion, raising tariffs for services in the situation when almost all market participants are fighting for survival is unethical and short-sighted. Moreover, we handle charter flights with medical devices necessary for the fight against coronavirus at a special tariff.
The only surcharge on the Moscow Cargo price list in recent months is the introduction of new tariffs for services that have not been charged before, such as for preparing the main deck of passenger aircraft for loading, or arranging ULD delivery from other Moscow airports to SVO.
Has there been any significant cooperation between stakeholders?
During the pandemic, air travel plays an invaluable role in delivering medical supplies. Without an effective and streamlined process of interaction between all participants in the supply chain – the sender, the carrier, the airport, the cargo operator, customs and the recipient – the prompt delivery, including humanitarian aid cargo, to the regions affected by the coronavirus would simply be impossible.
What lessons have been learned for future contingency planning?
Worldwide civil aviation in the era of globalisation is a very complex, perfectly planned and well-functioning mechanism. And the introduction of even of changes that seem minor at first glance requires, as a rule, lengthy preparation and a large number of approvals among all the components of this complex mechanism.
Now we are observing and participating in a kind of unique event, when dramatic and rapid changes in the world lead the industry, which is accustomed to strict medium- and long-term planning, to move almost to a manual-operational control mode. The decision-making speed at the level of service companies, airports, airlines and, as a result, the industry as a whole has increased many times over. And despite all the tragedy of the situation, this is certainly an invaluable experience in crisis management and a new level of interaction between market participants.
How do you see the situation evolving over the coming weeks and months?
We closely monitor the development of the situation in Russia and the world and study the forecasts of leading industry analysts – who, unfortunately, increasingly agree that the recovery process will not be simple or fast. Obviously, the pace and timing of recovery will depend, first of all, on the restoration of international air traffic. It’s too early to give any estimates now.
What preparations do you have in place for volumes returning to more normal levels as restrictions are eased?
One of the distinguishing features of the handling operator’s activity is the high qualification requirements for all operation personnel, those involved in ramp and cargo handling and engaged in documenting cargo transportation. On average, it takes about 2.5 months to train an ordinary employee of Moscow Cargo before the employee is allowed to work independently. Accordingly, our main task in times of crisis is to retain personnel as a necessary asset to return to the pre-crisis cargo volume.