Industry alliances and collaborations were a true success story during the pandemic and will continue to drive the industry forward and produce even greater success in 2022, says Martin Drew, senior vice president for sales and cargo at Etihad Aviation Group
After almost two years of pivoting and pirouetting to overcome various pandemic-induced logistical hurdles, the cargo and logistics arm of Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Aviation Group is now stimulating growth through its expanding partner network and enhanced digital and specialised premium product delivery. We believe this year’s winning combo will be superior digital assets to heighten efficiencies, performance, and market intelligence, supported by a razor-sharp focus on delivering positive experiences and building long-term client and partner relationships.
Etihad Cargo is committed to extending its portfolio of third-party partnerships after sharing in the success of Abu Dhabi’s multi-partnership Hope Consortium. The carrier plays a leading role in this first-of-its-kind complete supply chain that combines health, port, airline, airport, and freight forwarding partners to aid global vaccine distribution. Industry alliances were a true success story during the pandemic. These collaborations, whether through effective outsourcing or alliances, will continue to drive the industry forward and produce even greater success throughout 2022.
As the pandemic took hold, the carrier reached out to industry-wide stakeholders to fulfil commitments and address the worldwide capacity shortage that was hampering international supply flows. The biggest challenge was navigating the stringent border control measures implemented worldwide; in response to the immediacy of the challenge, Etihad Cargo enhanced its monitoring and co-operation with various authorities.
Measures were rapidly adapted to address required roster changes and shift patterns to protect pilots, crew, riding engineers, loadmasters, and ground staff – all while maintaining strict occupational health and safety measures in line with the World Health Organisation, the UAE Ministry of Health, UAE GCAA and Abu Dhabi Department of Health guidelines, to safeguard frontline operational employee wellbeing.
Etihad reconfigured five aircraft for cargo in-cabin loading, supported customers, as well as UAE Government aid programmes, and collaborated with UNICEF on pharma and aid initiatives, utilising its pharmaceutical expertise and global connectivity. Its Hope Consortium contribution highlighted how supply chain resilience comes from having the right mix of partners, products, and solutions – particularly in addressing the cold-chain complexities of vaccine supply – as well as tight alignment on shared values and complementary capabilities.
As the first Middle East carrier to earn IATA’s Centre of Excellence for Independent Validators certification in pharmaceutical logistics, Etihad takes the transportation of pharmaceuticals extremely seriously. It expanded its pharma reach into Africa with a Service Legal Agreement with Astral Aviation and Kenya Airways to provide reliable and cost-effective airfreight solutions across the continent. The SLA ensures Etihad Cargo partners are fully compliant with latest GDP and IATA Pharma regulations and standards, and guarantees processes are standardised, and performed to the highest quality.
We also acquired UAE General Civil Aviation Authority approval to expand dry ice carrying capabilities across our Boeing Dreamliner and Boeing 777 fleet, which has supported the carrier’s ability to handle vaccines including Pfizer, Moderna, and Sputnik, all of which need to be stored between -70°C to -18°C. Etihad reported an average of 50% year-on-year rise in pharma shipments under its specialised PharmaLife product during 2021.
The carrier has now maximised its fleet utilisation and is operating 10 Boeing 777 – five of which are dedicated freighters – for cargo-only flights. We recorded a 20% tonnage uplift in mid-2021 – when compared to pre-COVID – and have resumed 90% of Etihad Cargo destinations.
Over the past year, the carrier has been laser-focused on boosting its digital presence and capabilities with investment in a series of initiatives and transformation programmes, and there will be no let-up in its digital journey. The aims are to drive innovation to improve own efficiencies and provide cost-saving transparency and customer convenience.
A core project was migration of the carrier’s front-end systems migration, which enabled it to centralise processes through a state-of-the-art Cargo Control Centre that tracks, monitors, and reports in real-time on all customer shipments. It also worked with leading third-parties to introduce additional booking platforms to support its own direct booking functions through a revamped website and the Etihad Cargo mobile app. Its new-look website now includes quicker booking processes, streamlined flows, and a personalised dashboard for targeted recommendations and dynamic pricing. It received more than 1,500 bookings from 600 users during its first week, while users of the new portal have increased 70% on its previous site.
Following customer feedback, the site also now incorporates a dynamic map of the carrier’s global network and details the capabilities of its outstation teams. New features such as requesting shipping quotes, booking ad-hoc prices that have been negotiated offline, and booking shipments based on arrival timelines have been introduced. Meanwhile customers can also now create and manage booking templates based on previous purchases.
Additionally, the carrier has increased electronic air waybill penetration and says it continues to explore further programs with IATA.
Currently, Etihad is working through a proof-of-concept of SpeedCargo’s artificial intelligence products to verify its ability to boost cargo capacity on flights. It’s only the second aviation company to leverage SpeedCargo’s Cargo Eye dimensioning system, and among only a few global carriers to trial the AI-powered Cargo Mind software solution, which delivers optimal cargo space planning and near-instant utilisation in full adherence to regulations and business constraints.
Enhancing premium product delivery
To create positive experiences and build long-term relationships, Etihad has significantly enhanced delivery of its eight premium products with the appointment of a highly focused managerial team, each specialising in a service category. Operating across the carrier’s global network and spanning Africa, America, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East, Etihad Cargo also added four new appointees to take up the challenge of managing delivery of the company’s meticulously designed premium products, which each address the specific needs of vertical sectors.
The carrier’s premium cool-chain products include its award-winning PharmaLife, which leverages investment in specially designed, temperature-controlled equipment and assets to ship pharmaceuticals swiftly while complying to the highest industry standards. It also includes FreshForward, which simplifies the movement of fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy, fish, meat, and flowers, as well as LiveAnimals and SkyStables, the specialist products for the speedy and safe transportation of animals and horses respectively. Etihad Cargo is the only Middle East airline to hold IATA’s CEIV Live Animals, CEIV Fresh, and CEIV Pharma certifications.
Other premium products whose delivery will be in heightened focus include FlightValet, which simplifies and speeds up the door-to-door global transportation of high-value vehicles, FlyCulture, the tailored service for the secure and discreet transportation of rare and valuable art works and musical instruments, and SafeGuard, the dedicated secure transportation service for valuable cargo. Lastly, AirMail simplifies the global dispatch of letters and packages for registered businesses.
I remain circumspect about the unbelievable challenges the pandemic has thrown up for the air cargo industry, but I also remain optimistic about the route ahead. Unexpectedly, it has presented us with an opportunity to entirely reposition the sector from a necessary eco-system supplier into a highly responsible and innovative economic and social driver.
Global capacity constraints have directly impacted yields, but there are signs of recovery. There will still be challenges across the global supply chain, and carriers like ourselves are working directly with customers and partners to provide required airlift support where it’s most needed to address capacity shortages and minimise impact on overall trade flows.
Overall, we can say that the outlook for 2022 for the air cargo market is further growth, but we cannot say it will go back to normal. Passenger loads should increase; however, many airlines have reduced in size and capacity as a result of COVID, and sadly some have gone out of business, so there’s a lot of belly capacity that was there pre-pandemic that’s not going to be reactivated, affecting supply.
Etihad Cargo will relentlessly monitor demand and look to anticipate shifting trends, but we believe cargo-only flights will remain in operation until at least 2023. Perishables and pharmaceuticals will continue to be at the core of global logistic supply chains, while e-commerce, which picked up pace during the pandemic, will also continue to grow, placing an urgent requirement on logistics stakeholders to adapt.
The airline is also looking to expand its fleet this year with more 787s scheduled for delivery and five A350s due in service at the beginning of the summer schedule. In addition, by the start of Q2 we will launch Etihad Cargo Pharma hub – a dedicated PharmaLife operations centre facilitating pharma shipments. The industry will continue to be under scrutiny for its carbon footprint counter measures and we will proudly continue to pursue sustainability initiatives across eAWB penetration, as well as the study of sustainable fuels.