Overcoming Constraints: Innovating Ground Handling for Air Cargo Growth

Overcoming Constraints: Innovating Ground Handling for Air Cargo Growth
26 Apr 2023
Krishna Kumar Nallur

Pre-Covid, according to IATA, world air cargo transport was predicted to increase at the annual growth rate of over 4% in the next 20 years, and air freight is forecasted to grow at a rate of 4.3% per annum. Since then, air cargo volumes and demands have been through high peaks and low valleys. In spite of fears of a looming inflation, IATA reported that 2022 ended with volumes returning to “near pre-pandemic levels”, with the latest data showing that “demands rose above pre-pandemic levels” in 2023. The prediction stands true so far despite the fluctuations, and seems like air cargo volumes are set to grow in the coming decades. Some major constraints faced by ground handlers must be addressed in order to manage this growth.

Capacity Constraints

Airlines have been managing this growth by adding additional fleets, including passenger fleet as seen during Covid. However, as airlines increase the capacity to carry more cargo, the cargo warehouses will also have to evolve to match the increased capability. With surging cargo volumes, one of the main challenge ground handlers face is capacity constraint. Warehouse infrastructure tends to be outdated — designed for manual process and for volumes of the past. Upgrading these facilities to increase the cargo throughput per square metre of warehouse space to suit the rising demands is imperative. When ground handling is ineffective due to the lack of investment in infrastructure, it tends to create “bottle necks” and slow the performance of the entire network. An upgradation of operational processes is highly necessary for ground handlers to ensure quality handling with the increase in cargo volumes.

Labor Constraints

The other major challenge the industry has been facing is that of a shrinking trained workforce. There is a dwindling number of trained and experienced cargo handlers with ongoing retirements. This trend has been accelerated by the Covid pandemic with “thousands of ground handling staff” leaving the industry. New entrants to the workforce are less willing to do labor-intensive jobs, which involve both mundane tasks and hazardous heavy lifting. The lack of staff has been causing disruptions and delays in air cargo operations, and needs to be addressed by creating an environment where the next generation will want to stay and grow.

Revolutionizing Air Cargo Operations through Automation

A shift in mindset and the adoption of new technologies that will enable automating cargo handling is the solution to these problems. While the industry is on the right track by digitizing their operations, automation is where the true transformation will take place. Automation will not only increase cargo throughput but also save space and maximize the utility of existing infrastructure. Robotic technologies and automation will make air cargo handling attractive to the next generation by upskilling the workforce and creating an environment that focuses on managing and controlling digital systems. Lastly, automation establishes consistency and safety in quality handling. The existing handling process depends on trained and experienced handlers on the ground. With processes that rely on human labor, errors and delays are inevitable, especially with a fluctuating labor force and space constraints. Automating the cargo handling process will ensure consistent, safe, and quality handling with continuous 24x7x365 operations.

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