One-man crusade

posted on 6th June 2018

John Batten, executive VP of Swissport Cargo, talks to Will Waters about continuous improvement, e-freight, Cargo 2000, and beyond

Swissport’s charismatic head of cargo, John Batten, is a straight-talking and assertive individual, who personifies both the relationship-driven culture that evolved over many decades in the air cargo sector, but also the most modern aspects of international business management. Known affectionately as BJ by colleagues, ‘Big John’ has worked in the international air cargo and express sectors for more than 25 years, including stints at TNT and Qatar Airways, before taking on the top cargo role at Swissport’s headquarters in Zurich.

Also a sociable and humorous person, his strong personal connections throughout the air cargo sector have no doubt opened doors at times that might otherwise have been closed, and his confidence among his fellow senior heads of cargo means that he is not shy about voicing his views in public forums. These factors, and no doubt because he heads one of the world’s largest cargo ground handling organisations, led to him in March becoming the first ground handling representative at the table of IATA’s influential Cargo 2000 board – although the organisation’s constitution, currently allowing only airline and freight forwardingboard members, means that this can only be as a ‘special adviser’ for the time being.

Nevertheless, this voice on the board is a significant development for ground handlers and for Cargo 2000 (C2K), and its drive for improvements in quality across the air cargo sector as a whole, and Batten is keen to exercise his influence. It is partly his experience at the integrator TNT that has taught him the importance of measuring every aspect of performance, and hence given him such a strong belief in the potential of C2K.

“If you measure everything, you can see the places where things fall down, and address the problems,” he says. “Without this information, you are blind.”

His belief in C2K has led to Swissport Cargo adopting two of its measures within its own customer relationship management programme: NFD (On‐time Notification of Freight & Documents Availability); and FAP (the percentage of C2K Shipments Flown As Planned).

But Batten feels that C2K still has a long way to go to fulfil its potential, and welcomes the current review taking place within the organisation. He feels that things have moved on since C2K was initiated, and that some if its original aims are no longer relevant – particularly the desire to measure shipments door-to-door, all the way from consignor to consignee.

“I feel that we should be focusing more on the elements that are under IATA’s control,” he says. “If we had more measures within the handling element – the handover process between the airline and the customer, between the airline and the ground handler, the ground handler and the freight forwarder, the ground handler and the aircraft, and where there is a transfer between two handlers, then we can highlight more areas where things go wrong, and improve them. For example, at the moment, there are no measurements if the shipment is handed over from one handler and another, and in some cases that can take a day, but at the moment that is not visible.”

He doesn’t accept the idea that C2K should necessarily aim to reduce the number of stages in the air cargo chain.

“It is about putting some processes in place to measure the quality,” he says. “It was originally an attempt to combat what the integrators had and the airlines did not have. But since then things have changed. Airlines now have more measures, and freight forwarders have their own track-and-trace systems, and so it makes more sense to leave them to get on with that themselves, rather than C2K focusing on the utopia of a full track-and-trace system. In my opinion, that is beyond the scope of IATA, and I just think that they need to measure more in the areas that they can manage, and then we can get some real benefits from the system. But this is a one-man crusade at the moment.”

Unafraid of crusades, Batten is also a great believer in IATA’s e-freight initiative, but again feels that there are a lot of areas that need improving.

“I have been very public in saying that with e-freight we will be able to save costs in the office, and we will pass the costs back. But the airlines just don’t engage with it and Customs are not on the same page.

“IATA does an e-freight trial once, and that destination gets on the e-freight list, but that does not actually mean that is an e-freight destination in practice. For example, the US is listed as an e-freight destination, but you cannot e-freight there because there are Customs issues. But IATA is working on that now, at whether to advertise something as an e-freight destination or not.”

Batten also believes that the C2K and e-freight programmes should now be merged, because of the synergies between them. “One simple practical reason is that the individuals within each company responsible for C2K tend to be the same person that is responsible for e-freight, so it would make much more sense in terms of organising meetings and travel,” he says.

His almost evangelical and puritanical views about C2K apply to his own organisation, and Swissport is currently going through a process of re-certifying all its stations.

“Our top management understood C2K, but it is the people on the ground and their activities that really determine C2K,” he says. “If we don’t understand C2K in the warehouses and in the offices, then I don’t feel that we understand it, because it is their activities that change the dynamics of C2K.”

Batten believes that this is true across much of the air cargo sector, that C2K is not fully understood throughout its member companies.

“This was highlighted to us by KLM,” he says. “They have a fantastic C2K training programme, and they highlighted our deficiencies, and so we listened to our customer and reacted.”

Listening and talking to customers is what Batten describes as the “common sense” aspect of performance improvement, and another thing he is passionate about.

“Telling customers good news and bad news is equally important,” he says. “If you tell them bad news soon enough, you can turn it around into good news. If you don’t tell them anything at all, you will lose the customer. So it is about engaging with the customer and working as a partnership to move things forward.”

Regular customer surveys are also now a part of Swissport Cargo’s philosophy of continuous improvement, including surveys of customers’ customers. Although the company is not aligned exclusively to Six Sigma, Batten says it has made use of Six Sigma-qualified consultants to do some reviews. It has also used a programme in its warehouses called ‘Five S’, “which is about identifying where your brooms and straps and pallets should be, to tidy up our warehouses so that they look efficient and there is no mess hanging around”, he adds.

And after being caught out, like most, by the severity of the effects of the global financial crisis (GFC), Swissport has invested in a business intelligence unit, using and analysing various market tools, to try to gain advance warning of any significant changes likely to affect its business. Key among these is the OECD’s Composite Leading Indicator (CLI) and the Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI).

“We also now have daily volume figures across our business, which we compare with the previous months and the previous year, which we did not have back then, so that we can see what is going on in the market,” says Batten. “So we have become quite sophisticated. It is quite scary,” he jokingly adds.

Cargo is also used as something of a barometer for the rest of the Swissport business, and the signs in the second quarter were rather ominous, suggesting a possible double-dip recession looming, says Batten.

Another thing Swissport has done since the GFC is build in some additional flexibility into its business. “We have put some agency and part-time people in throughout our business, to create some flexibility to manage the peaks and troughs,” Batten says.

He acknowledges that using agency staff can potentially have implications for quality, something he is keen not to compromise, which requires working closely with the agency and its staff, providing the same training modules that in-house staff receives.

“But we also try to use them mainly for the ‘grunt’ work, rather than for the build-up and break-down [of pallets],” he says. “It is about using the people we have employed in the key areas, so that quality is not compromised. That is our number-one driver – if we compromise the quality, we compromise ourselves as a company, and I will not have that.”

Batten believes handling quality has improved in the industry in recent years, partly because of consolidation and initiatives like C2K, but also because of the efforts of individual companies. “Organisations such as Swissport that have put an emphasis on quality and performance, that has meant that everyone else has had to raise their game,” he claims.

He says three recent cargo handling awards won by Swissport, recognising it in the areas of quality, innovation  and people development, respectively, are useful signs that the company is heading in the right direction, particularly when they are the result of customers’ votes, and the votes of customers’ customers.

“It is nice to win the awards, and these are important indicators that we are making progress, but I still think we are nowhere near where we want to be. Continuous improvement is where I want us to be.”

So it seems that ‘demanding’ and ‘uncompromising’ are words that also need to be applied to our description of John Batten, and perhaps to a description of a modern, successful, senior cargo handling VP.