Two years ago, Air Canada Cargo gave a wayward bird a lift, in full cabin comfort. A rare Bullock’s oriole had caught national attention in Canada in December 2015 when it was found half dead in Ontario, far from its natural habitat, which stretches from southernmost British Columbia into the US.
Apparently, the bird had been blown off its winter migration course.
In the summer of 2017, it was finally ready to be returned to the west, a journey that involved two connecting flights on Air Canada. Due to temperature considerations, the bird travelled in the cabin in the company of an on-board courier.
“That was outside of our norm,” says Tomal Sohorab, manager cargo products business development at Air Canada.
Air Canada Cargo has arguably the most clearly defined norms for carrying animals. The airline has pioneered the CEIV Live programme for animals, which meant working closely with IATA in its development.
All aspects of animal handling were under review, from booking to acceptance, customer service, training, physical handling and facility set-up to transport to and from the ramp.
In addition, the scrutiny included compliance with customs and with protocols like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
“The whole undertaking took nine months from day one to certification,” recalls Sohorab. “We have strong auditing records, but we realised we weren’t highlighting the animal component, so we had to segment that out of the other records.”
There were also lots of gaps between processes to review and document. Some required bringing in resources from other divisions of the airline, which had to be coordinated to ensure everything was lined up properly.
For most of the process external resources were not accessible. Only in the final stretch, after eight months of work with IATA, could the airline reach outside. “We couldn’t acquire technology before then because we couldn’t explain the requirements,” says Sohorab.
With a long track record in animal shipments under its belt, the airline did not have to change its processes significantly, but in some respects, they had to be separated from general processes and metrics for specific definitions.
“Now we have a recurring training programme just for animals. Before it was part of the general training,” says Sohorab.
“Every tweak had a ripple effect. It cascades to other processes and training programmes,” he adds. Christian Theis, global product manager, Alive Service at Cargolux, regards CEIV Live as a step forward.
“I think we’re going to see some improvement in handling. Some stations that have done a good job will be rewarded,” he reflects.
Cargolux has no plans to go for certification, though. So far there has not been much interest on the customer side and going through the process requires a lot of work. “Moreover, it is important to have the handling agents on board,” Theis comments.
For now, Air Canada Cargo is in a league of its own with CEIV. Other carriers, such as AirBridgeCargo or United Airlines, have moved to step up their game by recruiting people with expertise in this segment.
Several airlines have teamed up with specialists in animal transportation to refine their processes as well as their reputation.
Over the past year, IAG Cargo formed an alliance with PetAir UK, which offers pet owners flying on IAG assistance with booking and travel preparations. It handles import and export documentation and all veterinarian requirements and offers home collection across the UK. For air transport, it fields customised crates lined with moisture-absorbent bedding.
Delta Cargo joined hands with CarePod, a pet technology start-up. Together they aim to develop a new transportation strategy. According to Shawn Cole, vice-president of Delta Cargo, his outfit is “always looking for ways to create a best-in-class travel experience for pets and their owners”.
For some airlines, animal transport is equivalent to pets. They do not carry other animals. Indeed, pets and their owners are a powerful target group, especially for belly carriers. People who are prepared to splash out on their animals are precisely the type of passenger that airlines are keen to get on board.
Air Canada’s passenger division has developed a partnership with a service that finds pet-sitters for travellers who cannot take their little friends with them.
Somewhat ironically many pet owners prefer to move their animals as excess baggage, reports Sohorab. While this allows them to remain together until check-in, for the pets it is better to be shipped as cargo, since this means extra resources for better handling, he points out.
While airlines enjoy the revenues that pets and their owners bring them, any mishap is likely to result in vitriolic publicity with potentially painful repercussions for business.
After a couple of problems that attracted broad opprobrium, United Cargo imposed a temporary embargo on animal traffic last year while it conducted a fundamental review of its animal transportation business. The possibility of stepping away from it altogether was also up for discussion.
That scenario would have caused serious ripples. Moving about 20 per cent of all animals flown by US airlines, United is the premier animal carrier in North America. Management decided to continue with the business, but it whittled down the programme to just cats and dogs.
It also banned over 20 dog breeds and four cat breeds, citing potential health issues for them on the aircraft. These decisions came after a review of its processes and all the related issues that was conducted together with animal welfare group American Humane.
Pet traffic is not only good for passenger revenues, it is also a growth segment. “Pets increased the most,” reports Sohorab about Air Canada’s animal business.
That said, the airline has seen growth across the spectrum of animals it carries, which is in line with the overall direction of this segment. The Global Animal Transportation Market Report 2018 projects 3.4 per cent CAGR for the 2018-2022 period.
Last year Cargolux enjoyed a 15 per cent increase in animal traffic over 2017 and this year has continued strong. “We’re going on at the same rate. We’re looking at some larger shipments,” says Theis.
The all-cargo carrier has virtually no pet traffic. Last year horses were the strongest category, showing an increase of 30 per cent over the previous year. “We’ve had quite a bit of bookings,” reports Theis, adding that the numbers of horses sent in single shipments have been on the rise.
One reason for this is that one competitor is phasing out its combi aircraft, he says. Livestock has also been going strong. Cargolux has seen a significant increase in this segment, from pigs to goats and cattle, including some cattle charters.
According to one forwarder, a major driver of this traffic is the proliferation of farms in emerging economies with a budding appetite for meat, such as China.
To build up herds, these farms import livestock rather than just sperm for breeding purposes. AirBridgeCargo Airlines (ABC) and Intradco Global, recently delivered 200 breeding cattle onboard a charter flight from Amsterdam to Yuzhno Sakhalinsk in Russia.
The heifers made their journey onboard one of ABC’s 747-8Fs in a carefully maintained temperature environment to ensure their comfort and well-being. Their arrival in Russia was greeted by the region’s farming community and will help to further develop the agricultural and farming industry in the Far East of the country.
The cows, each weighing some 500 kgs, will populate farms across the region. Tom Lamb, Intradco Global’s project manager, says: “This represents one of the largest single shipments of dairy cattle Intradco Global has ever coordinated.
We would like to thank AirBridgeCargo for their expertise in operating the charter. Like human passengers, animals are now getting a quieter and smoother flight experience thanks to the availability of new generation freighters like ABC’s Boeing 747-8F fleet.
This means our customers have more choices than ever for international shipments.” However, pig traffic to China is not as buoyant as in recent years, owing to the African swine fever epidemic, which is devastating the country’s pig count. If the epidemic is not brought under control, farmers are not going to bring in new animals.
“We have moved some pigs, but none to China. They went to Spain,” reports David Whitaker, chief commercial officer of the Columbus Airport Authority in Ohio.
Last year, the authority upgraded its animal facility at Rickenbacker airport and obtained designation as a certified export inspection facility and a permanent port of embarkation for livestock.
Numbers of tropical fish and exotics have been stable, according to carrier reports. It should be noted, though, that airlines have become more restrictive.
“We’re a lot more careful about what we do accept. We look at who the shipper is, and who the consignee is,” says Marc Roveri, Cargolux’s expert in animal transportation solutions. Among others, Cargolux bans primates, animals for research laboratories and animals from the wild.
The airline recently did move two Beluga whales that were being relocated from Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai to the world’s first open water Beluga sanctuary in a bay off the southern coast of Iceland. The move took months of preparation, as animal experts got the whales used to the special tanks in which they were carried on the 747 freighter.
Each unit was six metres long and two metres wide and required special equipment and bespoke stretchers to move and load onto the aircraft. For all the time and effort spent on this move, Cargolux did not make any money, as it was sponsoring the whales’ relocation to their new home.
Usually, though, yields are high. An executive of a forwarder that specialises in animal traffic says that his company pays a premium, but some airlines even ask for IATA rates, which is prohibitive if large numbers of animals are involved, particularly large animals.
Several airlines have invested in this sector, purchasing equipment like new stalls. Cargolux uses collapsible stalls that are top of the line, according to Roveri. They are heavier than older models but offer better welfare and safety for everybody, he says.
“We see agents invest in these stalls themselves. Not every airline has this type of equipment,” he adds. Air Canada is investing in technology to improve monitoring of ambient conditions. It plans to install Bluetooth Five chips in kennels as well as on the aircraft.
If everything goes smoothly Sohorab hopes to have prototypes available by the second quarter of next year.
“In the future a passenger on the plane can turn on the phone and get an update on the ambient conditions of the pet below,” he says. No doubt this will be popular with passengers travelling with their four-legged family members.
While standardisation and digitisation are extending into the animal transportation segment, e-commerce is unlikely to make any headway in this arena any time soon.
Animal associations would fight e-commerce, as the type of handling processes prevalent for on-line purchases is at odds with the care necessary when it comes to handling animals, remarks Theis.
For carriers and forwarders that have invested considerable resources in this field and built up expertise, this is just as well. The growth projections for animal traffic suggest that they will do well even without a boost from on-line shopping.
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