The handling of cargo throughout the air transportation process can present a number of potential headaches for operators. Air Cargo Middle East & India investigates the current standards, methods and equipment adopted by industry leaders.
While the airfreight industry has continued to grow at a considerable pace, the handling methods implemented during the air transit process have not altered radically.
Speaking to a range of handling equipment providers, ground handling operators, industry experts and airlines, it becomes clear that improving organisation is the main means for enhancing handling techniques.
Issues such as damage or pilferage are a common threat to goods transported by air and measures to counter these vary in shape and form.
Dubai International Airport has established a reputation worldwide as an efficient and secure operation, a fact that can be partly attributed to the quality of its ground handling company, Dnata.
"Dnata Cargo is the leading airport freight handling company in the Middle East and has always made safety a top priority. For more than ten years Dnata Cargo has established Total Quality Management (TQM) best practices across Dubai airport and all its air cargo terminals," says Jean Pierre De Pauw, divisional senior vice president, Dnata Cargo.
Evidence of Dnata's efforts to strictly regulate its cargo handling procedures comes in the form of industry certification.
In 2003, it became the first air cargo terminal operator in the region to obtain the occupation health and safety management system, OHSAS 18001. Similarly, Dnata Cargo also holds other security certifications, such as ISO9001-2000 and IS014001.
"Recently Dnata Cargo organised a cargo safety awareness campaign. The intiative involved a number of training programmes and workshops attended by more than 150 staff members, including equipment operators and drivers."
"The aim was to nurture a proactive approach to health and safety issues, with particular attention paid to risk management," notes De Pauw.
"Dnata Cargo's equipment operators and drivers also undergo regular training programmes covering various topics, including the proper handling of dangerous goods, occupational health and environmental matters."
If adopting international guidelines alongside implementing routine internal training is an effective means of developing high standards, the equipment used throughout the handling process also plays an essential role.
Unit Loading Devices (ULDs) or other forms of equipment used to uphold and support goods onboard vary immensely in their function and weight.
AmSafe Bridport has gained considerable expertise from its role as manufacturer and provider of cargo containment equipment.
Working in close collaboration with aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing, the company has often been responsible for raising the benchmark in cargo handling equipment.
"We are the world's leading manufacturer of air cargo nets, tie down straps, container doors and covers, thermal covers and various ancillary equipment for the cargo area within aircrafts," says Ian Kentfield, director, Asia, AmSafe Bridport.
"We are also the original equipment manufacturer for the 9G barrier nets for Airbus. Every Airbus model has our equipment, including the A380 and A400M, while we also have a range of Boeing nets for all models except one."
With a main manufacturing and engineering hub in Sri Lanka, alongside additional bases in the UK, US and China, AmSafe Bridport works closely with governing industry bodies when developing its products.
For example, a number of its engineers are also members of the technical panels within IATA.
While quick to point out the high standards of airfreight handling in the region, the company also believes there is definite room for improvement, particularly in the realm of cool chain solutions.
AmSafe Bridport manufacturers solutions ranging from high end KRM thermal containers to simplistic thermal covers, believing such products to be well suited to the demands of the Middle East.
"We have an arrangement with Avalon Services, which is based in Dubai and supplies our products across the region, so we are more than aware of the temperature related issues present there. I think a number of airlines recognise the requirement to cover themselves for particularly hot seasons but many gamble on just getting by somehow," identifies Kentfield.
"A simple solution would be our thermal covers, which are able to prevent a temperature rise of more than two degrees for over six hours."
Parallel to the careful selection of equipment capable of protecting goods during air transit, is the need to upkeep such equipment through regular maintenance checks.
This is a fact not neglected by Cargolux, which pays particular attention to retaining quality of equipment across all its global operations.
"Cargolux has carefully built up its own ULD equipment, which undergoes regular quality and air worthiness checks according to regulations communicated and agreed by the Ministry of Transport," says Pierre Wesner, vice president, Cargolux.
"If a certain quality is not found during an inspection, then the ULDs are sent for repair at the manufacturer, which is licenced to produce and repair the units by Luftahrt-Bundesamt (LBA)," he elaborates.
Advice and guidelines for carriers on both the upkeep and use of ULDs or any other forms of handling equipment often stems from three sources.
Cargolux, for example, follows preset procedures published by regional authorities, industry organisations and its own internal resources. This includes continuous reference to updated versions of IATA and JAR-OPS manuals.
However, some industry insiders feel greater support could be offered to carrier's wishing to enhance overall standards of handling cargo. Sarosh Jamsheed Nagarvala, current IATA and FIATA board member and former chairman of the Air Freight Institute, is a firm believer that more should be done by governing bodies.
"There is no best handling guide as such in place worldwide. The problem is the amount of time it takes for new rules and regulations to be passed."
This is a view shared by AmSafe Bridport, which has experienced difficulty in urging organisations to establish the latest handling equipment as industry standard.
"It is an incredibly conservative industry. If you take an area such as air cargo pallet nets, currently TSO C90C is the main industry requirement and there is also a proposal in place for a tier D version," says Kentfield.
"Yet there is no removal of approvals previously granted, so for example a carrier owning a pallet designed to tier A is still able to sell it on to another company, even though the industry has identified an improvement in standards presumably for good reasons."
"Many airlines will see a new standard out and adhere to it, but because there is no final redundancy date on prior approvals, there is a limited drive to removing these products from the industry, which ultimately prevents the process of innovation and improvement," he points out.
Greater drive from organisational bodies matched with enhanced collaboration throughout the supply chain, seems the best path forward for the improvement of air cargo handling techniques. Nagarvala has a final suggestion to offer the industry.
"The techniques used in the industry today are generally of good standard, but could be improved much more by greater organisation and collaboration across the supply chain. For example, if airlines were to allow their ULDs to be used throughout the whole supply chain as opposed to just for the transit by air, huge costs could be saved on intermediate handling," he says.
"The number of times goods are handled during a journey is huge and it increases the chances of damage or pilferage. By reducing this, the entire supply chain would benefit."