The air cargo industry rallied around the common mission of delivering vital medical supplies to defeat the COVID-19 virus. A multi-sector trade association wants to capitalize on that unity of purpose to drive collaboration on issues important to the sector’s long-term growth and society, such as digitization and sustainability.
“Prior to COVID, we were mostly focused on moving the boxes, but we often overlooked the value to society. COVID changed that. It was the best public relations campaign we could imagine because it showed the value of our industry to the public. We started focusing on what is inside the box and the impact it could have,” said Steven Polmans, chairman of The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA), during a media briefing last week.
“Everybody has learned the importance of cargo. The industry was able to unite around a common objective like it never did before, and what we did really mattered,” he added. “We are going to try and see how we can keep that shared vision long after COVID is consigned to the history books. I think that is what we can do.”
Polmans, who recently became chief customer officer at IT platform Nalian after a decade heading cargo operations at Brussels Airport, said the airfreight industry needs to keep promoting the value of cargo and related infrastructure as the public’s focus turns to passenger airlines restarting services.
His comments come as TIACA emerges from a yearlong reorganization that officials say puts it on a stronger financial footing and enables it to deliver better value to more than 400 members across the supply chain.
Transforming a hidebound industry to adopt digital processes and champion sustainability require similar levels of industry collaboration as the vaccine rollout because they aren’t issues that can be solved by individual companies, Polmans explained.
In both cases, TIACA’s primary role will be to promote innovation and showcase successful technology implementation.
“We have to identify other organizations that have shared and common objectives,” Polmans said, adding that companies similarly need to develop trust in order to share the data that will improve efficiency and customer service.
“We don’t want to just talk about sustainability, we want to see what we can do as an organization to help our members become more sustainable,” he explained.
The airlift of urgently needed personal protective equipment from China captured extensive media attention last year and airlines’ cargo role was splashed across TV screens when the first coronavirus vaccines started to be shipped around the world. Industry officials worked for months to ensure that airlines, airports, ground support and logistics companies were on the same page in terms of meeting the temperature-control requirements of pharmaceutical manufacturers for safe transport and storage of the sensitive vaccines.
The primary issue facing the airfreight sector was how to scale up and adapt existing infrastructure, processes and resources that normally support routine vaccine programs for an expected surge of emergency shipments to immunize 7.8 billion people worldwide.
The International Air Transport Association, which represents nearly 300 airlines, urged governments to eliminate regulatory red tape that might delay cross-border vaccine shipments and created an online platform listing validated air facilities and their specific vaccine-handling capabilities. It also published guidelines for overcoming logistics risks. The Cool Chain Association also produced a matrix to benchmark the ability of airports to safely and efficiently handle COVID-19 vaccines and identify shortcomings.
TIACA partnered with Pharma.aero, a coalition of interests that promotes best practices in pharmaceutical shipping, to form Project Sunrays, which conducted surveys of the industry’s readiness to handle vaccines, identify gaps and propose work plans. Project Sunrays produced a white paper on best practices in December, followed by another report on airport communities that have successfully organized to ensure every step of the air logistics chain meets pharmaceutical requirements.
New TIACA Director General Glyn Hughes, who previously headed air cargo policy at the International Air Transport Association, said the organization is working closely with the U.N.-backed COVAX Facility, which has a mission to equitably distribute vaccines to poorer regions of the world.
Many less-developed countries don’t have widespread cold chain infrastructure to handle cargo that needs to be kept in a deep freeze and have experienced extensive reduction of passenger services, which limits the overall transport capacity because the planes carry cargo in the lower hold.
“There has to be a lot of collaboration and communication to make sure the right vaccines are disbursed to the countries that can handle them,” Hughes said, referring to differences in storage requirements for vaccines that can range from minus 70 degrees Celsius to 8 degrees Celsius. “As more and more vaccines get approved in different countries, the complexity for the air cargo industry multiplies significantly.”
The virtual news conference was held to highlight recent organizational changes at TIACA designed to plug the organization’s cash drain, improve the governance structure and make it more relevant to members’ needs.
The group named four new board members last week: Liana Coyne, chief operating officer of Coyne Airways; Manel Galindo, co-founder of digital freight market WebCargo; Bob Chi, chief operating officer for Gateway Services – SATS Ltd., a ground handling company; and Hendrik Leyssen, vice president of global operations at ground handler Swissport.
The new board members come from sectors of the air cargo industry that have been underrepresented in the past. Officials said they want the 22-person board to be more inclusive in terms of geographic representation, age and industry type. Under the new governance structure, board members are limited to two four-year terms and follow a new code of conduct.
The director general position was also given complete authority to manage the day-to-day work of the association, with more clear lines of responsibility between the board and management. Eight board members will engage more directly with Director General Hughes and take intermediate decisions between board meetings so that TIACA can move faster when necessary.
TIACA also revised its membership categories, set up scorecards for evaluating performance, revamped its website and communications vehicles, and created a member portal to enhance connections and the ability to share information. Officials said they wanted to grow the number of shippers that belong to TIACA.
In addition to digitization and sustainability, the revised strategic focus includes safety and security, trade liberalization and skills development, Polmans and Hughes said. The organization may not be large enough to develop its own training program but may arrange for other groups to provide courses to ensure continuing education for member companies.
TIACA’s primary goal will be delivering content and helping members solve big issues, with less focus on lobbying.
In the area of sustainability, the group plans to host a webinar next month, is conducting a major survey and has a dedicated work group
Hughes stressed that sustainability is not just about carbon emissions, but includes wildlife trafficking, noise, recycling, diversity and human trafficking.
“We believe a prosperous industry is one that thrives and grows and is a value creator for society,” which means focusing on people, the planet and social justice, he said.