Whilst global air freight capacity is nowhere near the levels seen in 2019, airlines are finding unique ways to transport cargo by converting old planes, outsourcing them or using passenger fleet. Forwarders, meanwhile, are looking for every viable modal solution to offer shippers and manufacturers who are looking to produce on schedule. With an ongoing imbalance between capacity and demand, this has resulted to higher prices to ship by air.
Eric Lamare, director of scheduled cargo operations for APAC at AirBridgeCargo thinks that the only concern right now would be where to get the capacity. “Q1 2020 was almost completely lost for us. Q1 2021 is witnessing not only revival, but very impressive growth rates, which are 9% higher vs pre-pandemic 2019. The only concern right now is how the industry is going to develop under capacity constraints in the coming years.”
Back in February last year, the airline almost halted its operations but now it observed that the demand in Q1 is back to 2018 levels. In Asia, the carrier has been active with charter and scheduled flights from China, Hong Kong to Russia and Europe but also from Japan and Korea.
Payload Asia talks to Eric to find out more about his typical work day, the company’s Asia Pacific operations as well as its heavy duty fleet of Boeings and Russian freighters that carry e-commerce to outsized cargo.
Can you give us a brief background of how you started your career in air cargo?
I have started my career with Air France Cargo in CDG after a few years working on the passenger side. I have been working 15 years for Air France KLM cargo in Europe and Africa, moved to Freight Forwarding for a short period of time, then joined Volga-Dnepr Group in 2014, firstly in Europe and now in Asia Pacific since 2019.
In your role as Director of Scheduled Cargo Operations, how does a usual work day go?
I must say that it’s quite different since last year, when I was traveling almost 3 weeks per month, mostly in Asia Pacific to meet my teams, customers and partners. Nowadays, I spend most of the time in conference calls making sure that all our operations go smoothly, coordinating with my team, customers, and partners on a regular basis, as well as participating in virtual industry events to network with industry peers and stay in line with the latest trends. It is great to see that some of the offices are re-opened, such as in Hong Kong, where we have a chance to sit down and talk in person.
How has the company been performing since the start of the year compared to pre-pandemic levels?
The performance is far better in comparison with Q1 2020. The market in January 2020 was not good following the 2019 trade war and we had to almost completely stop our operations in February due to the COVID outbreak. Then, China was in lockdown and it took a lot of time for factories to slowly resume their production in March. Q1 2020 was almost completely lost for us. Q1 2021 is witnessing not only revival, but very impressive growth rates, which are 9% higher vs pre-pandemic 2019. The only concern right now is how the industry is going to develop under capacity constraints in the coming years.
How are capacity and air freight rates looking for the region?
The capacity is limited due to the lack of belly space from passenger aircraft and the demand in Q1 is back to 2018 levels. With this imbalance between the capacity and the demand, prices are higher than last year.
Which industries make up the bulk of cargo for Asia Pacific?
We are focusing on healthcare products, hi-tech goods, offsize cargo, dangerous goods (including lithium batteries and CAO goods) and e-commerce. And who are the forwarders that you predominantly work with in the region? We work with both global forwarders and local heroes, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean freight forwarders.
Can you walk us through ABC’s young fleet?
ABC is operating a young fleet of B747 freighters, mostly -8F with 13 aircraft plus four B747-400F and ERF. We have received our first B777F before the end of last year. With ABC being part of Volga-Dnepr Group, we also have access to a unique fleet of ramp freighters (An-124 and Il-76) and smaller freighters of ATRAN airlines (B737F) which could be available under our Cargo Supermarket concept.
Which routes in APAC have been seeing the most activity in terms of charter and scheduled flights? Mostly China & Hong Kong to Russia and Europe but also from Japan and Korea.
In e-commerce, what enhancements has the airline implemented to manage a seamless service?
We are operating dedicated charter programs on specific routes for e-commerce customers since 2019. We also provide capacity for such shipments on our scheduled network. ABC has been enhancing its customer journey experience to guarantee flawless, timely and user-friendly communication with its customers worldwide. That said, we have developed IT Hub and integration with customs operators, customs operations control system development. Besides, we have incorporated advanced schedule updates through e-mail in auto mode with frequency and other settings adjusted upon customers’ needs. Operations-wise, we have introduced improved ULD (PMC with extenders) for bulk cargo to use the empty loadable space in the lower deck compartment.
Has the company explored getting involved with the first and last mile?
We did not explore the possibility to get involved in the first and last mile for e-commerce as we don’t have the structure of an integrator to perform such services. We are only providing airport to airport services for the moment.
ABC is known for flying unusual special cargo. Anything unique or unusual the group has delivered recently? What was it?
We carry special cargo every day, live animals, cars, helicopters, aircraft engines, heavy or outsized machinery, dangerous goods, and of course vaccines of various types and under different temperature settings.
What can customers and end users look forward to in the near future from ABC/Volga Dnepr?
Most probably additional capacity in order to be able to cope with the strong airfreight demand. ABC will not receive additional aircraft this year but as we are one of the airlines of Volga Dnepr Group, we can also rely on our capacity to provide charter solutions using the Antonov 124 and Ilyushin 76 fleet. In the Group, we also operate B737 freighters and our sister company ATRAN will receive two new B737-800F aircraft within the next 2 months. Some customers are looking forward to it already. Apart from air freight transportation, we are ready to offer our customers logistics services, ranging from multimodal transportation schemes, design, manufacture or lease of special loading equipment, technical solutions for cargo handling and up to document processing.
Any advice to those who want to build a career in the industry?
Be ready to invest yourself a lot in this industry because this is a 24/7/365 activity to build air bridges around the world to transport the production of our customers to their clients. But you will never get bored and will meet a lot of talented and professional people sharing their passion for the industry. It’s a people business.