Will the sea be cruel to air cargo?


There have been numerous reports of cargo switching to ocean from air, including certain pharmaceutical products, flowers and fruit, writes Neil Madden.

However, it is very difficult to know exactly how much this trend has eaten into air cargo’s market share without surveying a representative sample of global shippers, and most are not willing to divulge such information.

As an example, at this year’s Temperature Controlled Logistics conference AstraZeneca’s global category leader of freight and logistics Julien Wann and global category manager Andrew Spencer said that the pharma company is on course to achieve 70 per cent sea freight volume.

Currently, the majority of AstraZeneca’s medicines are moved by air. AstraZeneca took a strong stance on ensuring quality in its supply chain, and as a result switching to sea freight has produced cost improvements, lower emissions and greater accuracy to prevent temperature deviations.

At the same conference GSK Vaccines’ Jeroen Janssen agreed that sea freight is becoming “more and more important”.

When examining freight payments from a total cost perspective, sea freight often emerges as cheaper. With airfreight, medicines require additional protective packaging, but when transported by sea just placing them in a refrigerated container (reefer) usually suffices.

However, shippers need to verify the quality of the containers as they vary from region to region. But a big advantage of ocean freight, he said, is that it has fewer ‘touch points’ than air, which reduces the risk of handling mistakes. Despite temperature spikes when loading or unloading, no product loss had yet been encountered, and GSK is also considering a real time monitoring solution.

Logistics consultancy Transport Intelligence (Ti) points out that overall the global cool chain market remains highly competitive and fragmented. But innovations in big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) could transform asset utilisation and the protection of sensitive cargo across supply chains.

The market continues to grow as new cool chains are created resulting from the buying power of rising middle classes in China and other developing countries, and by new demands for healthier and higher quality products.

At the same time, restrictions on pharmaceutical production and growing consumer awareness of food safety are pushing the tightening of government regulations on temperature-controlled supply chains.

As a result, reefer technology has seen improvements in recent years. Not only can reefers control temperature more accurately, they can also monitor humidity, light and shocks. The visibility this provides has helped improve the quality of reefers by encouraging further innovation. This allows newer reefers to keep perishable goods for longer, meaning a shorter travel time is less important.

Ti’s quantitative analyst Andrew Ralls explains, however, that: “Air freight carriers will need to innovate in the same way ocean freight carriers have done, though strong global trade in agricultural products, such as trees & flowers, vegetables and fruits, is set to continue and this will aid volumes for both modes of transport.”

Of course, airfreight is still an essential transport mode for getting temperature-controlled products quickly to market, whether these are vital medicines for hospitals or exotic fruits for supermarket shelves. But the air cargo industry will have to do much more than just rely on speed.

Data from IATA indicate that a quarter of vaccines reach their destinations degraded because of incorrect shipping and 20 per cent of temperature-sensitive products are damaged during transport due to a broken cold chain.

So as the sea freight industry has thrown down the gauntlet in terms of more reliable technology, air freight will have to respond in kind. These include technologies such as cool chain dollies that can enclose pallets and ULDs in a stable temperature environment while they are being handled on the ground in between flights.

Bluetooth tracking of ULDs, both on the ground and in the air can be used to alert shippers and forwarders about sudden spikes in temperature and record any sudden movements or shocks that can damage a load.

ULD lessor ACL Airshop and New Zealand-based CORE Transport Technologies are rolling out this technology to airlines across the world.

CORE managing director Ian Craig predicts: “2018 will be the breakout year for Bluetooth. We are enabling an aviation logistics revolution, just as the air waybill revolutionised air cargo almost 60 years ago.”

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