time:matters quickly adapts to a changing air cargo market

Alexander Kohnen, time:matters. Source: time:matters

Time-critical logistics firm time:matters has adapted rapidly to a changing market place over the last couple of years, discovers Roger Hailey

Passenger aircraft grounded and country borders closed worldwide due to Covid-19. That was the challenge faced by global door-to-door time-critical express and on-board courier (OBC) specialist time:matters.

Chief executive Alexander Kohnen explains: “In March 2020 we could see within minutes how our entire global network and customer demand was collapsing. From one week to another we lost about 50% of our business.”

Celebrating 20 years in business in 2022, time:matters, part of the Lufthansa Cargo group, responded swiftly earlier in 2020 when China needed face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) shipped from Europe.

Within a few months, the PPE supply chain reversed, from China to the rest of the world, with global airfreight capacity halved as passenger bellyhold space disappeared in a few days.

Says Kohnen: “The capacity went very rapidly and then, very slowly, the industry got used to the situation and in trying to find solutions.”

time:matters shifted some European airfreight shipments onto road although this stopped eventually because inland borders were closed.

In addition to a next and sameday network with 20 airlines, time:matters operates a wet leased own-controlled network across Europe using smaller freighter aircraft, typically the size of the Saab 340 with a 3.8 tonne payload.

Additional flights were added to the network, for example into Bergamo when Italy was experiencing high levels of Covid infections.

Demand takes off

By April, Europe was desperate for facemasks, virus test kits, gloves, goggles, and protective suits, all sourced from China or Southeast Asia.

“Demand was exploding. time:matters is an express company, typically running small shipments, and we were overwhelmed by new customers wanting to move PPE in massive quantities, things we had never done before.”

time:matters chartered more than 150 ‘passenger freighters’ from traditional bellyhold carriers and part of the Lufthansa family, including Austrian, and Swiss, to meet demand from governments and industry customers.

“It was a bumpy ride until this summer [2021],” says Kohnen, when PPE demand eased and normal business was recovering with a limited number of passenger air networks coming back online.

“We had to find flexible solutions and so widened our portfolio but also our airline partners to use multiple carriers across the network. We had to use different routes and hubs, which continues today.

“The network is now far better than it was in 2020 but even today, especially in Europe, we are still lacking around 40% of flights, which means a lot of connectivity is missing and it is still hard to reach some destinations with a high frequency.

“We are adding more airlines to our network and working with our customers on solutions, such as cut-off times and adjusting transit times to meet individual requirements.

“The challenges are not over, and solutions require huge flexibility.”

On a global scale time:matters works with more than 500 partners and in 2020 opened a same day network in the US with carriers including Southwest Airlines, United, American and Alaska Airlines.

“We are catering to our customers’ demands and they want speed, frequencies, connectivity and premium quality. Whoever can meet those needs will be included in our primary network.”

By necessity, time:matters’ portfolio has switched from being primarily bellyhold to a greater reliance on passenger cabin space and maindeck freighter capacity.

“If you look now at the 2021 fourth quarter, we are heavily engaged in the automotive industry with maindeck loads. We see the customers paying greater attention to stretched supply chains and premium logistics, even for larger shipments, and they entrust those increasingly towards specialist express operators like time:matters.

“Historically our average shipment size was around 20kg–30kg, typically high-speed express but especially during the pandemic the shipment size could vary up to several tonnes which would traditionally go with classical airfreight forwarders.”

The operator’s core high-speed express produce is mainly door to door via air, road and rail for urgently needed production equipment, medical samples, dangerous goods and important documents. If required, these shipments can be accompanied via OBC.

There are two OBC services, the first being time:matters airmates product where, pre-Covid, it had a choice of 12,000 OBCs. The second is an ultra-specialised life sciences courier service for the increasing volume of human stem-cell consignments.

This is served by a dedicated team within time:matters and a pool of more than 300 highly qualified couriers, mainly former pilots and flight attendants, who will accompany stem cell consignments from the collection point to the transplant centre.

“We are heavily engaged in the stem-cell segment, with a long time experience since 2009. It is very close to our DNA of a customised supply chain which is extremely high-performance.

“We regularly use retired pilots or retired flight attendants, people that are familiar with aviation and are able to cope with a high level of stress and to find solutions, in case of a service interruption, of how to get a shipment to the destination on time.”

Source: time:matters

time:matters is also present in the cell and gene therapy logistics sector for personalised medicine logistics, a market it entered two years ago, whose transport solutions can use air, rail and road.

Says Kohnen: “We see a huge trend towards high performance and global speed logistics also in this sector which requires complex supply chains.

“The patient’s demand for a personalised treatment is pressing once the disease is diagnosed and without a high-quality sample from the patient’s blood, the manufacturing cannot start.

“On the other side the reagents and components to manufacture the therapy product is partially biological with a very short shelf live. Such highly customised and globalised supply chains rely on high performance and global speed logistics services.”

Vaccine challenge

While some passenger air networks are now reopening, there remains a new hurdle in the choice of OBC, and that relates to different vaccine acceptance regimes across the world.

Being vaccinated in one country with one type of vaccine may not allow a courier to enter another country.

“Because of the travel restrictions, the current OBC business almost died in 2020 but it is back now in 2021 because those restrictions have eased again.

“However, in the past, someone with a passport could fly almost anywhere, but right now we are coming up with special acronyms such as National Interest Exemptions in the US and other special visa types.

“In terms of vaccination requirements, you might need to find a courier with the right vaccination in accordance with the respective country regulations. Certain types of vaccinations are not accepted in some countries.”

The classic OBC service is accessed online by the fully digitised quotation and booking platform which is the result of a time:matters “transformation journey” that started in 2018 and continues today.

Says Kohnen: “Obviously there is a lot of IT in the background and on the customer-facing side of the company we have always had a digital platform for online booking. Nevertheless, the first platform was launched in the early 2010s and the beginning of the 2010s, and it was a bit outdated.”

If time:matters wanted to grow and reach more markets it had a choice. Firstly, employ more people and open new legal entities worldwide, a strategy that would be slower than the other alternative, re-engineering the booking platform. It was the latter strategy that won the day.

“Digitalisation offers companies a very efficient way of obtaining global reach within a very short timeframe and that is why we embarked on that journey in 2018 with the launch of our airmates (OBC) platform.”

The progression of this journey resulted in the 2021 with the launch of the new platform on time-matters.com for quotation and booking of time:matters express shipments.

“You can click on it and use that platform even if you are not a registered customer and you will be able to do so in a very user-friendly way, as you can for Google or Amazon to request a quote. The quote is fully automated and produced in the background and the record for a customer booking a shipment is less than a minute.”

The platform can offer quotes for time:matters’ same-day air, same-day rail OBC and road transport solutions with additional products to be added in the future.

Bookings can be paid for on the platform using either credit cards, PayPal or a user invoice. Says Kohnen: “It is an extremely user-friendly and in-depth platform that allows customers globally to receive a door-to-door quote including everything, such as customs clearance and pre-and post-transportation, all in one workflow.”

He adds that the platform will introduce new functions such as live-tracking and special pre-agreed prices for returning customers. Customers in the Americas can already make a booking that allows them to follow US processes required by the Transportation and Security Administration (TSA).

One benefit of the new booking platform during the pandemic is that the automation it brings to standard OBC shipments frees up time:matters staff to focus on the complex planning and details of larger than usual consignments going through the network.

“It helps us to a great degree in the dynamic times we are in now. In the fourth quarter high season our customer service employees can concentrate on the large and complicated shipments rather than on the smaller and more standardise ones that can be done online without dealing with the customer directly.”

Looking ahead

Even before the Omicron variant of Covid, some aviation pundits were already talking of 2024 as the year when passenger networks and thus longhaul bellyhold capacity would return to 2019 levels.

How does Kohnen view the airfreight and express markets in 2022 and beyond?

“I think that 2022 will see still limited passenger flights and clearly Omicron is one topic, but we currently don’t know how it will develop and how it will impact flight networks and supply chains. Business on the passenger side is certainly not back to normal so we will see tight capacity throughout 2022, that is clear to us.

“One other thing, as an emergency logistics operator, there is a certain willingness [for customers] to pay for capacity, which we have to secure.

“I think it is more difficult if you are at the cheaper end of airfreight, and it is very, very tricky right now, but I think that for our time:matters clients it is usually possible for us to find capacity in order to offer them reliable transport solutions.

“However, it requires a lot of work by our network teams to constantly update and adjust the network, integrate new carriers and close route options which are not available anymore. It is a lot of hard work.”

The booming e-commerce sector for airfreight has not really touched time:matters because its premium service levels are not required, except for rare consignments of extremely high value, personalised goods.

The green agenda

Sustainability is a top agenda item for Kohnen, who is realistic about the challenges it poses for his suppliers and time:matters’ customers.

“On sustainability, I want to be very frank: transporting high-speed goods through the air is not exactly sustainable. Therefore, we have a large obligation to be front-runners in making it sustainable and time:matters has a strategy to convert all products into sustainable ones.

“We started with our OBC service airmates, we continued with our ic:kurier service. For this service carbon emissions associated with the first and last mile transport of these shipments within Germany will be offset.”

He adds: “Step one is always compensating for what we emit. The second stage, especially in tenders with our ground transportation suppliers, is for certain sustainability regulations. Basically, we asked them to convert diesel engines into electric engines. Most of our business goes on Sprinter vans and these are available as electric.”

The third and final step will be working with airlines that use sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and for airlines to use modern, two-engine aircraft instead of those with four engines.

“We are doing it step-by-step, and we increasingly demand our suppliers to present us with sustainable options. Air is the most tricky part but on the ground there is a lot we can do.”

Sustainability has been built into the time:matters express product range and that comes at a cost, not just for the operator but for the customer base.

“It is not that we have a green option or something like that. This product is a green one and that also means there is a price to it, because sustainability is not for free.”

time:matters is a specialist in transporting electronics like microchips, both for semiconductor manufacturers and the automotive industry. A global shortage of such chips has seen very high demand.

Kohnen says that the global chip shortage is set to drag on until 2023, with demand so high that customers are air expressing microchips in much smaller consignment sizes off the production line than pre-Covid.

This is just one example of one industry using additional global air logistics due to a spill over from a chaotic ocean freight sector that is experiencing port congestion, a shortage of maritime containers, lack of port staff and supply chain backlogs.

This is likely to continue, says Kohnen: “We see the stress continuing on supply chains for quite some time.”

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