Airlines for years have looked at ground handlers as levers to squeeze cost out of their cargo operations. The handlers themselves, however, have other plans. Increasingly looking to spread their services in new directions, the operators at airports are breaking through the fence and redefining their role in the expedited supply chain.
Some are doing it by going global and many are finding new business paths by becoming virtual transportation companies themselves, forging new possibilities for shippers and forwarders and allowing airlines to push their own services beyond the airport-to-airport world.
Handling companies don't usually run trucks inside their warehouses, after all, but Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminal did not let that get in the way of offering trucking services as part of its service portfolio.
Commanding some 80 percent of the cargo volume that moves through Hong Kong International Airport, it is not surprising that HACTL felt compelled to establish links to the markets in the Pearl River Delta to prevent a migration of air freight from Hong Kong to other airports in the region.
From the moment the first truck rolled across the border, HACTL management has never looked back.
This past year, its wholly-owned subsidiary Hong Kong Air Cargo Industry Services launched a scheduled road service to Dongguan, which marked the seventh point in China that the outfit serves by truck.
Like handlers around the world, HACTL is looking to protect its business and even grow. But the impact of such moves are rippling across the industry as forwarders and airlines are finding that the stopping point at the airport, once seemingly a hurdle to be overcome, can become a seamless part of a service chain.
Trucking has also become part of the menu offered by a growing number of handling agents around the world.
Outfits such as Swissport and Servisair have been operating scheduled trucking networks in Europe for some time now. In the United States, companies such as Aircraft Service International Group or Aeroground have well-established trucking networks in place.
For Swissport, the main focus of this activity so far has been on Germany, France and the United Kingdom, chiefly for Asian carriers.
"If you want to offer handling there (in some European markets), you need to offer trucking," observed David Harman, vice president of cargo for Europe, the Middle East and Africa of Swissport. This is typically done through subcontracting with scheduled truck operators.
"More and more customers are asking for seamless service, especially for import distribution. Exports seems to be more in the hands of GSAs," Harman said.
Swissport is looking to expand its trucking activities. Eastern Europe and Scandinavia are likely targets, Harman revealed. "Pan-European distribution would be a logical step, provided you get critical mass," he said.
But for HACTL, the service doesn't end with trucking.
The handler also advises clients that its staff can break down incoming cargo and re-label the individual shipments for collection. And it offers customs clearance as part of its transborder trucking activities, an activity that is normally covered by forwarders or customs brokers.
However, Harman has reservations about getting into customs clearance other than for personal effects, which is done at most Swissport stations. He does not want to encroach on the domain of forwarders, whom he regards as customers.
Increasingly, Swissport has been approached by cargo agents to provide warehousing. Harman notes in France and Germany groups of forwarders are seeking to reduce costs by farming out their on-airport warehousing.
The broadening scope of activities that handlers are prepared to take on is reflected in their information technology investments in systems that extend well beyond core warehouse and build-up/breakbulk functions.
Swissport Cargo Services Netherlands will be meeting all of Lufthansa Cargo’s airfreight and ramp handling needs at Amsterdam Airport for a three-year period.
The accords include major business commissions from 1 Time Airlines of South Africa and FedEx in Asia.