“The aviation industry has never before experienced anything like Covid and, of course, it’s not only airlines which have been so severely impacted but all of the other key service providers airlines need to support their operations,” states Barry Nassberg, Group Chief Commercial Officer, Worldwide Flight Services (WFS). Paris-based WFS is the world’s largest air cargo handler and one of the leading providers of ground handling and technical services with annual revenues of over €1.1 billion. Its 22,300 employees serve more than 270 airlines at 170 major airports in 20 countries on five continents.
“Our industry has been through global recessions, SARS and 9/11 but Covid-19 has presented the biggest and most difficult challenge I can ever recall from a lifetime career in industry, and we will take valuable lessons from it,” adds Nassberg.
“From a handlers’ perspective, we have had to deal with not only the virtual overnight cessation of airline services but also the fact that the response and support for critical industries like our own has been so different and disparate in countries around the world. From the beginning, our priority was to retain our highly trained and experienced workforce, but this has been an enormous pressure, especially in countries where governments were offering no furlough schemes or other initiatives to help businesses which, Covid aside, were extremely sound,” says Nassberg.
“Prior to Covid-19, we had a strong business and a very positive growth outlook. We still do but getting through the past 16 or so months has tested all our resilience, expertise, experience and the commitment of our shareholders.”
“Staff retention was not only important to WFS but also to the over 270 airlines we represent. Our customers rely on the expertise of our people to help ensure the safety and security of their operations as well as the service experience of their customers,” says Nassberg. “It is not easy and certainly not quick to reemploy, accredit and train a workforce if you’ve made large numbers of people unemployed because of the global pandemic.”
“We all knew Covid-19 would eventually be brought under control and, when it was, our airline customers would need to resume operations as quickly and efficiently as possible. Having qualified teams ‘ready to go’ at the 170 airports where we have a presence, whilst maintaining the highest safety and security standards, was the only way this was going to happen.”
“We not only had to retain as many people as possible, we needed to keep them safe from the risk of Covid in the workplace. For WFS, this meant the rapid global deployment of equipment such as facemasks, hand sanitisers and other protective equipment as well as rolling out a global communications campaign to instil the best Covid prevention safety practices in every station to protect our people,” says Nassberg.
“A big lesson from this experience for governments, I hope, is to appreciate the critical role aviation plays and this must include an understanding that ‘aviation’ does not just mean airlines. It means all the stakeholders in the aviation chain for both passenger services and cargo transportation.”
“We obviously hope to never experience this level of disruption ever again but now, as politicians think about how their nations would cope with a future pandemic, support for the entire aviation sector must be paramount, not just in terms of words but economic support when it is genuinely needed. If they put in place new measures to achieve this, their national recoveries – in terms of public health and economically – will accelerate at a far faster pace.”
The importance of cargo
“As the world’s largest air cargo handler, WFS has been less exposed to the collapse of the passenger market, but we were still severely impacted, nonetheless, by the global reduction in flights. Clearly, a high percentage of cargo is carried onboard passenger services, so Covid restrictions removed a very large amount of capacity from the market,” says Nassberg. “However, in its place, we have seen not only an increase in freighter services but also the emergence and astronomical growth of ‘preighter’ services as passenger airlines have recognised the opportunity to maintain a valuable revenue stream by using their aircraft, and their passenger cabins, to carry cargo.”
“Our teams have had to adapt to this new type of handling to satisfy the urgent demand from customers. As IATA pointed out only recently, cargo has kept long-haul services cash positive for many carriers. Whereas, in a typical year, cargo divisions contribute around 10-15% of airline revenues, in 2021 this will be around 30%. I think the experience of the last 16 months will bring about a real sea change in the way cargo is viewed in airline boardrooms around the world. Its importance has never been greater.”
“Initially, virtually all this cargo capacity was used to transport PPE as countries around the world raced to source rapidly diminishing supplies of protective equipment,” says Nassberg. “The speed and reliability of air cargo helped to save countless lives globally and WFS was at the forefront of supporting this. Liege Airport, for example, asked us for help to handle the significant rise in all-cargo flights. Our Europe, Middle East, Asia and Africa (EMEAA) team were amazing, setting up a handling operation from scratch within 72 hours by taking over a new and unused cargo building in Liege and transferring personnel and equipment from WFS stations in Belgium and the Netherlands. Consequently, we helped to ensure PPE reached hospitals and Covid patients as quickly as possible”.
An industry response
“From this response in Liege, we firmly established our partnership credentials and are now making a long-term investment to be part of the airport’s growth and to support the leading airlines which now use Liege as an important European hub in their international cargo networks. Only recently, we have signed a 10-year contract in Liege with a major cargo airline, so we are seeing a valuable ROI from stepping up as part of the aviation industry response to Covid.”
“I can’t speak highly enough of the teamwork I’ve seen across our business, and I think this is true across the industry as a whole,” says Nassberg. “The livelihoods of people and the survival of companies have been threatened by Covid, but I sense the aviation industry still recognised an even bigger responsibility to be part of the solution for victims of the virus and to help the incredible medical teams who were also working round-the-clock to save lives. I think the whole industry should be very proud of its contribution.”
“After the rush of PPE shipments, we made preparations for the long-awaited rollout of vaccines and, again, WFS was at the forefront of this thanks to our investments in the previous 2-3 years in dedicated pharma facilities at major airports in EMEAA. We were more than ready to meet the strict handling and temperature requirements of the first vaccines, and we are still doing so.”
Protecting strategic investments
“Another priority for us – despite the historic disruption going on in the aviation industry – was to continue pressing ahead with strategic investments which are critical to our business and to our customers,” explains Nassberg. “This includes our commitments to major new facilities in Brussels, Atlanta and New York JFK as well as facility upgrades and expansions at other airports across our network. We have also continued to invest in pharma handling facilities and our training, safety, and security programmes. A good example is our new Security Operations Centre (SOC) for our EMEAA region, which provides centralised 24/7 monitoring of WFS cargo handling operations at over 40 airport stations in 12 countries.”
“Technology investments are part of our drive to digitalise areas of our business to benefit us and our customers. Some examples include investments in cyber security monitoring, Bluetooth tracking to improve ULD visibility and utilisation, and more self-service kiosks for truck drivers to reduce loading and unloading times and improve productivity for customers,” says Nassberg.
“The aviation industry has demonstrated its resilience before and we are confident it will do so again, despite the enormity of the challenges it has faced, and continues to face,” believes Nassberg. “The high volumes of cargo we have continued to handle throughout the last 16 months means WFS is especially well-placed to support the industry recovery as it gathers pace. IATA estimates Covid has cost the airline industry two years of growth, but its indicators are encouraging.”
“Obviously, different markets will recover at difference paces, but passengers will want to travel again as soon as they are allowed to. The global economy is already back to the pre-Covid levels and industrial production is 2% above 2019, so after such a turbulent 16 months, I am confident the industry will make a strong and sustainable recovery. Based on the impact of previous global events, IATA estimates the ‘demand shock’ to be between 6-18 months. I sense that once aviation is given back its wings, it will enter a period of strong growth and, from a handling perspective, we are already seeing interesting opportunities beginning to emerge from a fresh new wave of airline thinking,” he concludes.