More freight delays feared at Chicago O’Hare airport for peak season.
Rapid growth in cargo volumes has led to delivery trucks stacked up waiting hours to pick up or deliver loads at terminals, which have a limited number of loading areas to service the trucks. Motor carriers respond by assessing congestion surcharges and requiring 24 hours advance notice for shipment recoveries at freight facilities. Complaints mount that terminal personnel lack the urgency to retrieve or process shipments.
Facilities are at capacity. They aren’t adequately staffed at truck transfer zones. Outdated work processes and lack of coordination among supply chain partners are the norm. Meanwhile, there is insufficient infrastructure for efficient intermodal connections. And frustrated shippers and freight forwarders who can’t get cargo on time end up paying for the delays.
Is it the familiar litany of horrors shippers, logistics companies, truckers, ocean carriers and railroads have experienced at major container ports such as Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Norfolk, or New York/New Jersey?
No. It’s the cargo environment at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport this year.
Other big airports also face congestion at cargo facilities, although not to the same extent.
“If there is a long wait at the airport the freight forwarder faces the prospect of possibly missing a flight, or if it’s an inbound situation, showing up late for a delivery,” Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association, said. “And in a business where time is money, oftentimes the forwarder is the one getting stuck with the cost. And that’s not sustainable for our industry.”
The world’s busiest airport in terms of takeoffs and landings has been the conduit for 772,000 tons of domestic and international cargo through the first half of the year, a 23.5 percent jump from the same period in 2014.
Virgin Atlantic Cargo said its cargo volume for the Chicago gateway climbed more than 30 percent in June from a year ago to 860 tons.
Last year, O’Hare ranked as the sixth largest U.S. airport for cargo, according to the Airports Council International – North America.
The big surge occurred earlier this year when shippers tried to escape the effects of the West Coast port slowdown that crippled ocean transport to and from Asia until dockworkers and management settled on a new labor contract. Shippers, especially automotive manufacturers with assembly lines poised to shut down without necessary components, were so desperate to get needed products that they diverted many shipments to air transport, even though it can cost six to 10 times as much as transport by water.
According to air cargo industry officials, at least 100 specially chartered freighter planes arrived at O’Hare each month between February and April.
Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways averages about 5 to 6 million tons of import and export cargo a month in Chicago, operating 11 freighters per week. During February and March, the airline’s volume almost doubled and it added nine extra flights per month, Roy Matthew, the Chicago duty manager, said.
Congestion has improved since the end of May as volumes decelerated with the resolution of the port situation, but there is concern in some quarters that the upcoming peak season could usher in another round of backlogs because many underlying infrastructure and operational issues remain.
Import volumes from Asia and other parts of the world traditionally increase in late August through mid-December as retailers build stocks for the big holiday shopping season. Air cargo growth might even be higher this year because some shippers remain skittish about the productivity at West Coast ports and want to hedge their bets by shifting cargo to other ports and air transport.
Nippon Cargo Airlines, which handles more international tonnage than any airline at O’Hare, is already selling additional capacity from Asia to the United States on extra scheduled flights or ad-hoc charters, Shawn McWhorter, president of the Americas region, said.
The normal seasonal upturn in fourth quarter bookings “is happening a bit sooner and more aggressively than we’ve seen in recent years,” he said.
Atlas Air said in its July 30 earnings release that it is bringing an idle Boeing 747-400 all-cargo plane back into service and entered into a short-term lease for a freighter to help meet demand for charter capacity in the peak season.
“Based on these early trends, I’d expect to see strong demand for air freight for Asia to Chicago,” McWhorter said. “It won’t be anything to the level we saw in [the spring], but it will be a busy time for the airport.”
Pinch Points. Infrastructure—older warehouses with finite space and the geographic configuration of the road network on airport property—is a constraint on cargo flow when volumes are high, freight industry experts say. On top of that, major road construction projects underway around the airport are making truck access extremely difficult.
Airport warehouses are designed to be flow centers, not storage areas. When many planes throw a lot of cargo on the apron in a short period of time terminals get backed up, and the backlog snowballs to forwarders who have facilities in and around the airport. When logistics providers don’t have space to put shipments, they don’t pick up their cargo as regularly, compounding the overcrowded conditions at airline facilities. Airlines and their service providers, in turn, have trouble locating particular shipments for specific customers, slowing down the transfer process and causing long lines of trucks waiting to pick up cargo.
Adding to the traffic backup are dead-end roads going into several of the largest ground-handling facilities on the south airfield, which have a limited amount of staging area.
Truck drivers bound for the Alliance Ground International and Air General cargo buildings, for example, can’t get out of line and turn around when there is a backup until it is too late. Alliance and Air General are large outsourced providers of ground-handling services to airlines. They are located at the end of the street and face each other, which leads to bottlenecks whenever there are large numbers of trucks.
The traffic has a ripple effect on others such as Cathay Pacific, which utilizes the Total Airport Services facility. TAS is not as far along the service road, but the line from the other terminals blocks trucks trying to get to its warehouse, Matthew said.
Meanwhile, Mannheim Road is being widened on the east side of the airport, while a new connection between O’Hare and the city of Rosemont is being constructed to provide an alternative access route. The work is expected to benefit drayage companies and general airport traffic when completed, but until then it is creating havoc for motor carriers, industry officials say.
The four-lane road has been cut in half for construction and the new lanes are narrow and difficult for trucks to transit. Heavy construction activity this summer was taking place right outside the cargo-area entrance where a majority of forwarders dispatch their trucks.
Freight executives in Chicago say it would have been nice if city officials had consulted the air cargo community ahead of time on how to carry out the construction with less impact on air trade.
Some trucking companies are responding by adding a “congestion surcharge” of about $20 to their invoice to cover their wait times, a fee that is picked up by the forwarder, said Mitch Estrada, general manager of Sky Cargo, an airport trucking firm.
Sky Cargo is watching the market reaction before deciding whether to follow suit.
“If the airport congestion doesn’t get alleviated it’s something the truckers are going to have to implement because nobody wants to go there to pick up the cargo” and lose half the day for one delivery, he said.
A shortage of warehouse manpower associated with the airlines’ practice of outsourcing ground operations and government bureaucracy is also blamed for amplifying delays during peak periods.
In the past, each airline operated its own facility, accepted cargo from and presented it to customers, built the pallets with cargo, and loaded and unloaded planes. Those functions, in most cases, have been shifted to outside contractors since the turn of the century as airlines sought to cut costs.
Now, cargo handling is carried out by a handful of agents and concentrated in a few buildings. Some ground handlers provide service under one roof for eight or more airlines and their warehouses can be overwhelmed during peak periods.
But the big problem, industry officials say, is that ground handlers have a difficult time scaling their manpower to keep up with demand.
Airlines often make quick decisions to add charters based on market conditions, but may only give the handling agent a week’s notice about the increased volume coming their way, according to Scott Case, a former customs broker and the founder of Position: Global, a marketing firm that helps logistics companies connect with customers through social media, branding, and website optimization.
That’s a problem because it takes six weeks for new workers to get the requisite federal and state background checks and a badge from the Federal Aviation Administration to work in highly secure airport environments.
Ground handlers were caught short when freighter activity surged in the spring because they didn’t have enough staff to break down the cargo and load or offload trucks.
“So if you trying to respond to increased volume by hiring more labor you know you’ve got six weeks to wait before it shows any impact. And that’s probably untrained manpower. So there’s a learning curve for them too, and who knows how long that takes,” the Airforwarders Association’s Fried said.
Change Agents. The air cargo industry is often criticized for its hidebound ways of doing business. Change comes slowly for an industry that offers speed as its main selling point. Many traditional processes no longer suit a world dominated by capacity constraints and digital commerce.
Nippon Cargo Airlines, which operates about 14 Boeing 747 flights per week to O’Hare, fundamentally changed how it handles cargo to mitigate delays during the spring surge and was the first airline to recover from the congestion.
Instead of waiting for forwarders to come pick up their cargo, NCA directly contracted with trucking companies and had trucks ready at dock doors so cargo could be loaded and sent to the forwarder as soon as it was consolidated from the aircraft, McWhorter said.
Taking responsibility for ground transportation was more expensive, but it was better than letting warehouse productivity deteriorate.
“I incurred extra costs, but it was the right thing to do to make sure we are still servicing our customers,” McWhorter said. “I had to get it out of my warehouse. I couldn’t store it here for four, five, six or seven days, because more flights were always coming in.”
McWhorter only hires drayage carriers now as needed, or by request, but has also taken steps to address one of the fundamental inefficiencies of airports and seaports: the random nature of truck deliveries.
Motor carriers tend to dispatch trucks at their own convenience, which often results in large numbers of trucks arriving at the same time.
NCA has made arrangements with larger forwarding customers to pick up cargo at scheduled times so that it is staged and ready when they show up. Lufthansa is also developing an appointment system, according to Case. Appointments are not a novel concept, but are not widely used in the airport sector and are only beginning to be tried in certain port environments.
The unpredictable and unannounced arrival of trucks is one of the factors contributing to ongoing delays at other terminals at O’Hare.
Local freight professionals say there tends to be a crush of trucks around 3 p.m. trying to drop an export load and pick up an import shipment.
Cathay Pacific is instructing customers not to come for cargo during the peak time, Matthew said. Truckers trying to pick up and drop off in one shot rather than making two separate trips exacerbates congestion because warehouse workers may not have had time to consolidate the inbound cargo, which leaves trucks waiting and taking up parking space, he said.
“Everyone wants to operate on their schedule” rather than on what’s best for the system, Dan Gadow, until recently an airport manager for Air France-KLM and now consulting under the New Barton Consulting shingle, said.
The unwillingness to adjust practices has created an impossible situation for the ground handlers, he insisted.
“Nobody can staff for peak demand all the time,” Gadow said. Some large logistics companies operate three shifts and can process freight at night, but the vast majority of service providers have not adjusted their schedules yet to accommodate the new operating realities.
Another problem, he explained, is consignees pushing forwarders to get their regular cargo treated as express products by picking it up within two or three hours of arrival rather than the airlines’ published commitments.
More terminal capacity is on the way. The first phase of an expansion project on the northeast side of the airport is expected to open for business by 2017. The Chicago Department of Aviation selected real estate company Aeroterm to develop the new air cargo campus. It will bring more than 800,000 square feet of new airside space and a new ramp than can handle at least 15 B747-8 all-cargo aircraft. The project will increase capacity by about 50 percent over the next decade.
Some air cargo executives said the new cargo village will help alleviate congestion, but added investment in cargo infrastructure at O’Hare was slow to materialize and took a backseat to passenger facilities.
Meanwhile, DHL in 2013 opened a new 500,000-square-foot distribution center on the north side of the airport to shorten the time needed to get shipments to and from aircraft. The facility was built under an existing airport ground lease with Aeroterm.
Some in the local cargo community have suggested that shippers and carriers may be better off using an alternative airport such as Chicago Rockford International Airport, where UPS has a hub. The airport is about 80 minutes from O’Hare by highway and receives non-scheduled cargo flights from Atlas Air, NCA, Cargolux, Kalita Air and Volga-Dnepr Airlines.
Collaborative Response. More than 100 people attended a summit to air grievances about the congestion in late May. The International Air Cargo Association of Chicago and the Chicago Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association have since taken the lead in addressing issues by forming an informal working group with representatives from the airline, ground-handling, forwarding, and trucking sectors. Notably absent from the group are shippers.
Case, who carries the title of “chief storyteller” at Position: Global, is in charge of organizing the participants, who are scheduled to hold their first meeting at the end of August.
Until now, Case explained, industry stakeholders haven’t done a good job coordinating operations. Parties tend to work in their own vacuum with direct business partners, but systemic issues require collaboration across the supply chain.
“We need to have a better line of communication. The key stakeholders haven’t all been together in the same room to understand what’s unique to each other’s business,” he said. “The ground handlers look at things from the perspective that they are the airlines’ service provider. The airlines look at things through the prism of the forwarder as their customer. The trucker also responds to the forwarder. So they all look at one piece and don’t appreciate what other stakeholders one positioned removed have to deal with.”
The working group will gather at Lufthansa Cargo’s terminal and Case said he envisioned future meetings rotating to different members’ facilities so everyone can get a first-hand view of the work flow in different parts of the supply chain, identify where things break down and how to correct them.
The first step towards gaining efficiency is to gather better metrics on existing processes, Case suggested. Ground handlers, for example, measure wait times from the time a truck driver hits their dock door, rather than capturing the total amount of time the driver is in line—a practice common at marine terminals, too.
Case said the cargo community needs to find ways to share information about terminal conditions so truck dispatchers can prioritize where to pick up and drop off cargo based on backlogs and driver availability
“If we could give near real-time conditions for waiting for cargo availability we can help them manage their pick-ups and deliveries better, and reduce the amount of time spent waiting unnecessarily,” Case said.
He proposed ground handlers use Twitter to message when cargo is available after aircraft arrival, or to notify drayage companies about wait times. The information would especially help smaller companies that may not receive electronic status updates from the airlines.
Perhaps, he added, someone with a tablet could walk the line of trucks and get the airway bill numbers and other information from drivers so the front office can pull the paperwork and have the consolidated shipment ready when the driver reaches the dock—similar to the way someone at a quick-serve restaurant might take orders from people in line to speed things up.
The airport authority should also put service requirements in leasing contracts for terminal operators, such as meeting certain productivity criteria and having adequate restroom facilities for truck drivers, Case recommended.
Performance metrics for ground handlers are a priority for forwarders, according to Fried.
“Airlines need to accept some measure of responsibility for the cost-controlling measures that their vendors are implementing, particularly those that have cut operational staffing and have resulted in overworked employees and high worker turnover,” he wrote in a commentary published in Air Cargo World. “They can do this by imposing documented processes, metrics, rewards and penalties for their handling partners. Establishing comprehensive service level agreements defining output and results expected need to be in place and audited by airlines on a frequent basis. Since airline computer systems often say freight is on hand and available when the handler cannot find the cargo, more needs to be done in improving communication so that forwarders and truckers are not wasting money by needlessly waiting at the airport for freight that hasn’t yet arrived.”
The development of operational improvements can become best practices that could spread to other gateways that are feeling some of the same pressure and are served by some of the same national and global companies, he said.
This article was published in the September 2015 issue of American Shipper.