Technology can unlock Heathrow’s latent airfreight capacity

Nick Platts

Heathrow has Parliamentary approval for a future third runway but the airport’s head of cargo, Nick Platts, believes that better use now of new technology in the cargo centre can “unlock latent capacity” to handle increased airfreight volumes.
Platts, speaking at the Farnborough International Airshow, said: “The new runway will double our cargo capacity and this will create new opportunities for businesses right across Britain to trade with the rest of the world and to create new jobs and add value to the national  and regional economies.
“With 95% of the global economy potentially just one flight away from Heathrow, expansion will deliver the crucial new infrastructure for Britain to secure a strong economy the generations to come.”
Addressing the airshow’s cargo conference, Platts continued: “But I want to be clear that the physical infrastructure and expansion of it is just one way to ensure capacity keeps pace with demand.
“One of the biggest challenges we face in our sector is the unlocking the latent capacity and using it to drive efficiencies to limit cargo footprint to deliver better service for our customers.”
He called for the “whole of the value chain”, from airlines to freight forwarders, manufacturers, hauliers, handlers, control authorities and airports to “come together and play their part”.
Addressing the IATA-organised conference, Platts said that paperwork, poor technology and outdated policies pass inefficiencies along the air cargo value chain. He cited paper-based records as the worst offender, with the “inordinate cost of manual data re-entry”.
Platts said that the UK cannot act alone on digitisation in a “global game”, where organisations such as IATA and TIACA can play a positive role to facilitate change in the industry.
Platts focused on IATA’s Cargo-XML messaging standard, which replaced the Cargo Interchange Message Procedures (Cargo-IMP) standard.
“The industry needs strong leadership and clear direction. We must move quickly to a single messaging standard. Cargo XML sounds great but which version are we talking about?
“Despite support for Cargo-IMP being withdrawn in 2014, you can still use it. Try using Windows XP today, when support for that operating system was withdrawn in 2014.”
He called for IATA to set “a clear and unequivocal” deadline for the withdrawal of Cargo-IMP and to “publish the roadmap to a single version of Cargo-XML”.   
He added: “Moore’s Law says that computing power doubles every 18 months. So, since Cargo-IMP support stopped in 2014, the power of processes and IT systems has increased sevenfold.
“It is a pity that our industry’s processing capability has not kept up. There are lost efficiencies throughout our industry and in some respects it may already be too late. But the emerging Blockchain technology promises much and if it can be delivered, then perhaps traditional messaging will disappear.”
Closer to home and Heathrow’s third runway, Platts said the air cargo industry “must go beyond the physical expansion to truly capitalise on cargo growth,” citing larger capacity and quieter aircraft.
“This technological step forward by the aircraft manufacturers sets in motion a cycle of improved investment and outcomes for all of us. Airlines and airports working together can fill them with passengers and cargo.
“You can only achieve this if all stakeholders work together to make the most out of those improvements. One link in the chain should not benefit on another link.”
Platts said that 94% of the cargo through Heathrow last year flew lower deck, well above the market average. Some 70% of the UK’s total air cargo volumes are handled at the airport.
“Our cargo strategy will lift cargo volumes through improved service ahead of the increase in capacity from the third runway. At a time when Brexit threatens to make it harder to move goods through borders we want to be a trusted partner with you: timely, predictable and easy to do business with.”
He summarised the airports top targets, including to minimise and stabilise cargo throughput times, working with stakeholders to change or remove processes that cause delays in throughput times and to develop more efficient airside access.
“We will support redevelopment of the cargo area and build new facilities to meeting rising demand when required, in association with our partners Segro and in consultation with you, the community.
“We will also consult with our stakeholders on the right commercial model to support and incentivise cargo volume growth.
He added: “As a commercial entity we need to enable cargo revenue growth for everyone, so that we can all reinvest in new technologies and efficiencies for our customers.
“The value to Heathrow from cargo comes from an extensive passenger route network, upgauging of aircraft to cater for cargo demand and, of course, dedicated freighters. And we are working to improve all of those assets.”
Heathrow’s cargo centre ‘horseshoe’, designed and built in the 1960s, is now a prime candidate for the bulldozers when the airport expansion goes ahead. Platts believes that bulldozers alone are not the answer to make cargo flow faster.
“Everybody looks to a redeveloped horseshoe, for example, as the cure, but I don’t believe it will, because infrastructure alone cannot fix all or our problems.
“Unless the industry modernises its working practices, collaborates more effectively and agrees to common ways of working, then the benefits of any new infrastructure will be only partially exploited.
“Airports with a strong effective community perform well, and those with modern facilities do well too, but it is those who combine modern facilities with modern ways of working that do the best.”
He suggested allowing for the movement of imports from one transit shed to multiple warehouses on the same vehicle and the ability to co-load imports and exports on the same vehicle would also ensure that vehicles are better utilised.
“Using technology in more intelligent ways and modernising processes rather than trying to shoehorn the technology into pre-existing processes, in particular border inspections, would help secure them as well as improving efficiency.
“Allowing goods to be inspected inside the border rather than at the border would free up capacity to grow.”
One questioner from the audience, ironically from Leipzig-Halle airport in Germany, asked about Heathrow’s preparations for Brexit.
Platts put the European flows in context and said that around 3% of Heathrow’s tonnage flies to and from Europe, with another 3% trucked to and from Europe
He said that management was working on contingency plans for all the Brexit options, including the opportunities, such as a free trade zone for Heathrow: “There are some questions to be answered but once we know the deal, then we can really start the preparations.”
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