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PASSENGER SERVICES Last modified on April 15, 2013

Easy flow

Are airports doing enough to develop multi-modal supply chains for cargo? Ian Putzger investigates.

Cathay Pacific’s new HK$5.9 billion ($760.7 million) cargo terminal at Hong Kong International Airport, which opened in February, boasts an impressive array of cutting edge features aimed at meeting aggressive performance targets. 

The airline intends to use the facility to reduce average connection times from today’s eight hours to five and, eventually, three hours. It also aims to halve cut-off time for exports from currently four to two hours, says Algernon Yau, CEO of Cathay Pacific Services, a subsidiary of the airline that has been in charge of the design, construction and management of the terminal.

One key aspect in this equation is the smooth flow of trucks in and out of the facility. A truck control system has been developed to avoid congestion in the truck parking areas and kerb dwell time at the loading docks.

Even without such performance targets, airports and cargo facility operators are increasingly looking to the landside of their patch. 

Trucking has always been part of the air cargo supply chain, but now there is a growing interest in solutions that combine different modes of transportation.

“Multi-modal solutions in general have become more popular in recent times as companies look to reduce logistics costs and improve their carbon footprints,” reports Nicklas Schlingensiepen, head of airfreight operations and compliance for the Asia-Pacific area at logistics provider, DHL Global Forwarding.

Ray Brimble, CEO of air cargo facility developer Lynxs, confirms that multi-modal concepts are on the rise, but warns that most airports in North America have a long way to go to position themselves adequately. 

“I think many airports have still not digested the utilisation of truck traffic,” he says. For one thing, most costing mechanisms that are in place today rely on aviation activity, he points out.

The challenge goes way beyond altering the charges levied. Truck access management has to be improved, if not developed altogether, and the velocity of cargo traffic flows needs to be taken into consideration, adds Brimble.

“The velocity is much higher now, particularly for special services designed for high-yield traffic like pharmaceuticals, and truck flow patterns need to be re-thought. 

“This may mean a different configuration of the cargo building and the parking lot. And you don’t want to mix your cargo with passenger flows. Maybe it is better to knock down a building and re-build.”

Mike Webber, a former airport cargo executive turned industry consultant, also sees a need for far-reaching overhauls of cargo facilities at many US airports that would take multi-modal logistics concepts into account. 

The realisation of this need has gradually spread among airport authorities, but few have taken steps to address the issue, he finds.

“Intelligence-led management of trucks at airports to reduce congestion and improve flows is an acknowledged idea, but the decline in cargo that we have seen in the downturn, has diminished the perception of the need for such steps, which is regrettable. Now would be the ideal time for some long-term improvement, both in bricks and mortar and in IT,” he comments.

Webber points to Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals (Hactl), which handle the lion’s share of Hong Kong’s airfreight throughput, as one of the pioneers in this arena. 

Truck access to its facility is controlled by a vehicle information system. Hactl has a traffic control office that monitors dwell times and allocates parking slots to trucks.

Several measures have been taken to reduce truck dwell time at the Hactl terminal. About 80 – mostly larger – freight forwarders are currently using the handler’s scheduled collection service for imports, under which they pre-book collection at a scheduled time and the handling company prepares their freight for pick-up. 

Smaller forwarders can pre-declare their pick-up schedule over its website, which can be performed using mobile devices to allow drivers to book their collection while on the move. Hactl can also conduct customs clearance on behalf of forwarders if the requisite documentation is submitted in advance.

It offers its clients faster access to major points in the Pearl River Delta through its trucking subsidiary Hong Kong Air Cargo Industry Services (HACIS). 

The outfit tracks all shipments though an interactive online cargo management system that provides full visibility of cargo records and inventory. It is linked to Hactl’s operating system that was upgraded in 2011, and information is fed electronically to airlines.

Fraport, the operator of Frankfurt Airport, is about to get a better handle on trucks rolling to its cargo buildings. Last year it trialled a community system that aims to speed up information flows between the various links in the supply chain and thereby reduce cargo processing times. 

A key element of the initiative is to draw in operators that are not core to the airfreight segment, such as truck operators.

Information about a truck and its load is submitted electronically in advance to the system operator. Combined with features like licence plate recognition, this brings about a significant reduction of time spent on checking incoming trucks for compliance with security regulations, says Bernhard Lessmann, Fraport’s senior manager of cargo city development.

“The time between the handover of the documentation and the actual offloading of the cargo is the critical part – everywhere, not only in Frankfurt,” he adds.

According to Lessmann, truck dwell time at an airport can be further reduced through status updates on truck docks to ensure that vehicles are directed to open positions or to parking areas if none are available. “We want to keep our roads clear of parked trucks,” he remarks.

Several freight forwarders are currently engaged in pilot projects with the system. “The platform is functional. Data can be exchanged via a web application. Now, the next step is to work out how the faster data flow can accelerate processes,” explains Lessmann.

Amsterdam Schiphol has tackled the question of truck access to the cargo facilities on the airport and security requirements through a smart ID card that truck drivers can obtain from Air Cargo Netherlands after a background check. 

Now it is looking to load information about the cargo on the truck onto the ID card, so a vehicle arriving at a cargo facility can be directed straight away to a designated dock for unloading, without having to check the load first, says Enno Osinga, Schiphol’s senior vice president for cargo.

In a second initiative aiming to speed up the customs clearance process for EU exports, Schiphol has teamed up with Dutch Customs and Air Cargo Netherlands. Under this scheme, manifest information is fed electronically to Customs, who then decide whether an inspection is necessary. 

Originally, the participants were thinking of a central control facility, which would have taken up a large amount of space on the airport, but then the realisation set in that this could be better managed through a combination of a smaller central building, mobile units and facilities on forwarders’ premises, reveals Osinga.

At this point the control centre is up and functional and the central scanning facility is currently in the final design phase.

Much of the strategy talk at Schiphol goes beyond the airport’s perimeter. “We hardly talk about the airport. We talk about the logistics chain – what do shippers need, what do forwarders need?” says Osinga, adding that the division between ocean and air cargo has become increasingly blurred.

Under the Amsterdam Connecting Trade moniker, the airport has joined hands with the port of Amsterdam to develop a logistics corridor which links the two with a trade zone that houses logistics and related services. 

And one of the objectives of this initiative is to connect the IT systems of port and airport. Down the road, Osinga has his sights on another mode of transport. 

“We look to build a cargo station that connects us to the high-speed rail link between Amsterdam and Paris,” he says, adding that this should ultimately feed into a pan-European high-speed rail network. This could eliminate the need for some night flights, he reckons.

In Hong Kong, Hactl is looking at a link to the city’s port. “Such intermodal traffic does exist, but the interface is currently generally handled by the freight agent, mostly without HACIS involvement (unless we are asked to provide clearance and port transfer),” notes CEO, Mark Whitehead.

“This is because of the different shipping terms, procedures, insurance arrangements, packing etc required in switching modes. But we do regard this as a potential market, and will be conducting our own studies this year to quantify the demand and opportunities.” 

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