Schiphol’s Jonas van Stekelenburg: Only connect
19 / 06 / 2017
When you are already one of the world’s busiest cargo airports, and arguably the one best known throughout the industry for its innovation and thought leadership, where do you go next? That is the challenge for Jonas van Stekelenburg, who took over as cargo director of Amsterdam Airport Schiphol on September 1 last year.
In reply, he offers an interesting fact. While cargo volumes at the airport declined slightly in 2015 − down 0.7%, compared to a 2.1% fall in the first half of the year − the number of shipment declarations filed with Dutch customs rose by 15% during the year, with growth most marked towards year-end.
In other words, there is a shift from bigger imports to smaller imports, which van Stekelenburg sees as part of a wider trend – e-commerce growing at the expense of traditional commerce, small shops and businesses growing while large ones struggle.
“There are more small packages, but also more smaller players,” he says.
What implications does this have for an airport? It means that it needs to be faster and more reliable at processing shipments. That means better ground operations and better and more transparent data. “At Schiphol we are already recognised as good in both these areas, but to maintain our position in Europe we need to be the best,” van Stekelenburg says.
One way to achieve these goals is through the revamp of Cargonaut, Schiphol’s venerable cargo community system, which has been around for 30 years and has morphed into an all-purpose common IT platform for cargo during that time.
In the process it has acquired lots of extra systems and applications, all linked together, but the time has now come to put them onto one integrated platform. “This year shipments have increased by 15% but we do not know the end of this [trend],” says van Stekelenburg.
“In ten or 15 years’ time it could be a 100% increase. So the system has to be ready for the future.”
The Schiphol Group is only one contributor to the €2m being spent on upgrading Cargonaut, half of the money for which is coming from a coalition of the Dutch government, logistics institutes and entrepreneurs, and the rest from various air cargo bodies. The project, initiated under van Stekelenburg’s predecessor, Enno Osinga, includes implementing the World Customs Organ-ization’s data model and a new Air Single Window Government Portal.
But it also looks as if it will be crucial in improving ground handling co-ordination at the airport. Van Stekelenburg and his team are currently consulting with the Schiphol air cargo community about how to do this, but he thinks that better data use and transparency will be part of the answer.
“We need to know what cargo is coming both by air and by road, and with that information we can plan better what needs to be in place when it arrives.
“We already know a little bit about what is coming, but we need to know a lot more.”
This is even more important in a world in which belly cargo use is growing. It is perhaps easier to have the right equipment in place when a freighter arrives than it is to know what cargo loads will be arriving on various passenger flights.
Van Stekelenburg reckons that the trend towards the growth in belly cargo is here to stay, but says it is not clear how far it will go.
“We think freighters will always be needed, because goods do not always fit into bellies, because some cargo is not allowed in bellies, or because there is not enough belly capacity on some routes − for example, for flowers from Nairobi.
“But capacity on passenger aircraft has definitely increased and that brings with it new requirements.
“KLM has already said please invest in belly handling, that we need more punctual operations and perhaps belly to belly transfers.”
Of course, getting all parties in the chain to provide more information is easy to say but hard to achieve, as van Stekelenburg admits: “Everyone is happy to share operational data, but not commercial data such as price and maybe type of goods.
“But that is exactly the data that customs wants to know. These are all issues that have to be worked out.
“But we were the first airport to automate our passenger border and we have procedures to move flowers swiftly from the airport to the auctions, so if anyone can work out it out, we can.”
Increasing focus on belly cargo also has implications for the way that cargo is marketed by the airport.
After all, the decision to fly a passenger aircraft to an airport is made by the passenger division of an airline.
But van Stekelenburg says that input from Schiphol’s cargo team is increasingly being sought: “Cargo is typically 8-10% of the revenue of an intercontinental flight, so it is often make or break.”
The Schiphol Cargo team is increasingly employed in providing analysis to belly operators about potential cargo and in what van Stekelenburg calls ‘matchmaking’.
One example is the recent decision of India’s Jet Airways to move passenger operations from Brussels to Schiphol. The analysis needed in such cases is often even more complicated than for freighter operations, so van Stekelenburg has no doubt that the Schiphol Cargo team has a strong future.
Key to almost everything that the airport does is the famous consensual ap- proach of the Dutch.
Asked how this works, van Stekelenburg says that it has historical roots. “We are a small country and so we are very dependent on trade. So, for example, our customs authorities have a mindset to facilitate business.
“It is not that they are less strict than other customs authorities, but that they understand the needs of other parties. Everyone accepts each other’s role and puts themselves in the minds of the other players.”
This doesn’t always guarantee instant success. One airport project called eLink aims to enable all the information about shipments on a truck to be linked to its licence plate so that it is automatically uploaded when the truck arrives at a cargo terminal.
By early 2015 it was being used for 30% of shipments and there were talks about making it part of the conditions of carriage at the airport: a year later, uptake is still only 37% and the conditions of carriage discussions are still continuing.
Meanwhile, a central control centre where customs can view scans and videos of all shipments on the airport and decide which to inspect – part of the SmartGate project – will open in November this year, four years later than planned.
But van Stekelenburg nevertheless holds up the latter as a prime example of the consensual approach, “not just a public/private co-operation but a public/public one because customs officials will also select shipments for other authorities, such as the food inspection agency.”
And, in general, he thinks that co-operation is the only way forward for air cargo, pointing to other airports such as Brussels, Heathrow, Hong Kong and Incheon where the principle is gaining ground.
“As an international air cargo community we need to improve our performance and working together is the way to do that,” van Stekelenburg says. “We are fighting against seafreight, railfreight and goods going via integrator hubs.
“So we have to stay relevant for shippers, for the Amazons of this world, and that means having all the technology, data and insights that they want.”