Ashwin Bhat: Swiss WorldCargo looking to preserve the premium

It can be tough to take over from a high profile figure, as Ashwin Bhat has done in succeeding Oliver Evans as head of cargo at Swiss. But Bhat is no stranger to the organisation he is now leading and nor has he played a minor part in its strategy in the past decade. 
Prior to taking the helm on October 1, he was for two years head of global area management for Swiss WorldCargo, and since 2002 has worked in various cargo roles at the carrier, including being head of area management Asia, Middle East and Africa.
As a result he insists he was not daunted by taking over the top job, but admits: “Being number one is different from being number two. I knew I was taking the lead of a much admired organisation in the industry, so I look at the job with only respect. I have respect for what the organisation has done in the past 30 years.”
No radical changes to strategy are on the horizon — Swiss will continue to focus on premium traffic and there are certainly no plans to add any freighters. But the business does face some challenges. As Bhat puts it: “We can’t just lie back on our past success. Things are changing very fast, so we have to learn from the past but adapt to new circumstances.”
One example is increased competition in the premium sector. 
Swiss was a pioneer of focusing on pharmaceuticals, valuables and other specialist cargo, but now more and more airlines are trying to muscle into this space, seeing it as the panacea for falling yields and the ideal way to fill growing amounts of belly capacity.
So how can Swiss still differentiate itself? Bhat’s answer is that Swiss has a whole culture of quality and experience in the sector that it is hard for others to replicate. “You were right that we were the pioneer, so we have a good starting point,” he says. “Demand for our quality and experience is ever increasing. And while others are trying to copy us, we are not lying back on our strength, but looking at how we can further improve.”
This is not just about having the right products and facilities, but having the right attitude. “If the quality of our offer was the only component, anyone could copy it,” Bhat says. “But it is more than that: it is the purpose, values and attitude of our teams. This is hard to copy and this is reflected in our premium.”
Continued improvement in the specialist product offering includes getting Good Distribution Practice (GDP) and IATA’s Centre of Excellence for Independent Validators for Pharmaceutical Handling (CEIV Pharma) in Zurich recently, something that Bhat says is being extended to other stations with the aim of achieving it across the whole network. The carrier is also looking at new container types.
Despite all this, he does not exactly deny that yields in the sector are under pressure, saying “we obviously have to play in the market, not out of it”.
He agrees too that modal shift to seafreight is happening. “We can’t just ignore it. That is where our challenge is — to bring the value of air cargo to pharmaceutical shippers.”
This includes talking to the shippers themselves, but only, Bhat stresses, via forwarders. “For us the customer is the forwarder. But the pharmaceutical industry is very demanding and they want to see who the end supplier of the service is. We have a very open relationship with our forwarders.”
Another area of premium cargo that Swiss WorldCargo is looking closely at is e-commerce — that is the movement of parcels from retailer to consumer. Oliver Evans, of course, has linked up with parcel drone company Matternet since leaving Swiss, but Bhat is talking more about airport to airport. 
“What we are looking at is whether there is a way for us to penetrate the e-commerce segment,” he says.
“This is at a very, very early stage of investigation, but we are looking at whether we can offer our services to international e-commerce.”
Perhaps the biggest event for Swiss in 2016 will be the arrival of six B777-300ERs, the first one due at the end of January. Three more are to follow in 2017.
The aircraft will be replacing the carrier’s A340-300s (of which it currently has 15) on a one-to-one basis. They are the first Boeing aircraft to be deployed by Swiss since it was formed out of Swissair in 2002.
The 777s will obviously be good news for Swiss WorldCargo, boosting capacity by 12%-15%, and carrying 25 tonnes on routes where the A340 would manage only 18 tonnes.
Initially, the aircraft will be deployed to JFK, Boston and Tel Aviv, but this is mainly because these are shorter routes where rotations can be faster and the crew can be rapidly brought up to speed on the new type.
From April these routes will go back to being served by A330s, the other workhorse of the Swiss fleet, and the 777s will be flying to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Los Angeles and Sao Paulo. 
Bhat says that some of these routes have been capacity-constrained from a cargo point of view, which should make filling the extra uplift easier.
But he also admits that there will need to be a new sales approach. “With 25 tonnes you need a different tactic to fill the plane. This is not so much a change of strategy, but looking at new ways that we can meet the demands of our customers.”
Bhat also talks about new efforts to “enhance customer care” through digital technology. Swiss has recently introduced an “e-AWB single process” at Zurich and other hubs whereby forwarders can submit data for all shipments electronically and have Swiss print out a paper air waybill if regulations require it. But Bhat is not just talking about e-AWBs or e-freight.
Instead he wants to use technology “throughout the customer journey” in air cargo — with the carrier being more proactive in giving solutions, and looking not just at after sales but pre-sales. 
An enhanced Swiss WorldCargo website will be a key part of this, designed to be more accessible on mobile devices, and offering customers their own area within the portal where they can set what information they want to receive, whether about track and trace, invoicing, or the temperature of the shipment.
“For an organisation, digitisation is a success factor,” Bhat says. “As an industry, slowly but surely we are getting into a knowledge business. If we can use technology to do away with manual work and channel staff into giving service to the customer, then that is good for the organisation. 
“Today data can even be monetised — it has a value. 
“We will have to look at this in the future.
”Swiss is now a part of the Lufthansa Group, but still retains its independence and own strategic direction.
Bhat says that WorldCargo uses the same internal benchmarks as Lufthansa Cargo, and there is a code of conduct so that the two entities don’t cannibalise each other’s businesses. Also at station level, managers talk to each other.
But he stresses that WorldCargo is in no way a subsidiary of Lufthansa Cargo and that it ploughs its own furrow.
“From a structural point of view, Swiss is part of the holding group and Lufthansa is another part,” he says. “We are quite independent in our strategy and in terms of what we are.” 

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