Air cargo charter companies often need to act rapidly to deliver for their customers. Bernie Baldwin learns from leading companies how that can be achieved.
Since you gotta go, you’d better go now!” So sang The Moody Blues many years ago in their hit song that could almost be an anthem for the air cargo charter market.
Of course, companies needing to move products and equipment around prefer to plan their transportation in good time and air cargo charter companies are key providers of that lift. But quite often too, the call goes out requiring a swift pick-up and departure, and that is where the charter companies come to the fore.
The demand can vary wildly, of course, whether on delivery timeframe or size of shipment so the cargo charter companies definitely don’t work to a one-size-fits-all operation.
Pierre Van Der Stichele, vice president of global cargo at Air Partner details the many different types of cargo that his company can handle for a client: “We work with all types of cargo, from transport vehicles, car parts, aerospace components, food supplies, pharmaceuticals, humanitarian goods, garments, e-commerce and heavy industrial freight, as well as live animals.”
Or Zak is chief commercial officer at Challenge Group which, in 2022, operated around two charters per week to all kinds of destinations around the world. He says: “The demand for this specific product is growing during the current year as well: a total of 100 flights carrying a broad mix of commodities from humanitarian aid to relief, lifesaving goods, vulnerable art works, essential energy/oil-and-gas equipment, crucial music stage equipment, live animals, the freshest of perishables, life-saving pharmaceuticals and Covid vaccines, through to eye-catching automotives. When it comes to shipment shapes and sizes, we’ve probably seen it all.”
Zak adds: “There have been empty energy turbine containers, for example, flying to a strict deadline from Houston (IAH) in the US to Cairo (CAI), Egypt. Or a heavy and dense energy rotor, taking off from Liege (LGG), Belgium, and flying to New York (JFK), US. These required not only intense coordination, but also specialised handling equipment at both ends. And then there are those valuable, once-in-a-lifetime movements, such as the transport of a unique, world-renowned, fragile art exhibition from Doha (DOH), Qatar, again to New York (JFK). All charter requests are carefully considered and executed.”
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The tasks for which these companies are called upon to perform thus require use of all the experience and capabilities within the operations. Those long-built qualities help to decide which route to send the cargo (including ground transportation each side of the air lift), which aircraft type would be best, and then sort out the schedule.
Van Der Stichele said: “Our global team consists of logisticians with different backgrounds and qualifications specialising in cargo airlines, pharma logistics, defence, humanitarian, aerospace, time-sensitive shipments, dangerous goods handling as well as experts in heavy project cargo.
“Our customers – traditionally freight forwarders – send us charter enquiries which we diligently assess via a comprehensive set of questions. These questions include the nature of the commodity, the presence of dangerous goods, dimensions and unit weight. This information allows us to determine what aircraft type (not too big or not too small) is required and the team will focus on obtaining prices in that aircraft category.”
Van Der Stichele continued: “We then ask all carriers with that aircraft type in their fleet for pricing and for the date that is available. The customer then decides the date of a flight and the schedule and we negotiate a departure date and time as close as possible to the client’s requirement. The purpose of a charter is to expedite valuable, delicate and urgent freight on the date the customer wants, hence a ‘dedicated charter’.”
Van Der Stichele also explains what bearing all that can have on the customer’s priorities, regarding the speed of delivery and the pricing: “The chartering of an aircraft is typically the costliest part of air freight because the setup of the operation is often on a short-notice basis. The steps involved in the operation include the mobilisation of crew, operations teams, customs personnel and handling agents to set up every part of the flight in a short period of time, day or night. Cargo charters often take place when shipping by sea is not a viable option due to time or logistical challenges. Time is money for the shippers, so aircraft chartering becomes the next best alternative which allows our customers to meet tight delivery deadlines.”
The capabilities within Challenge Group extend beyond the deciding routes, aircraft types and schedules. Zak explains: “Having multiple air operator certificates makes Challenge Group very flexible. We use whichever option enables us to fly the shortest possible route in the interests of time, costs for the customer and sustainability. When arranging the charter flight, Challenge Group endeavours to avoid empty return runs wherever possible, and to feed those return sectors into the Group’s scheduled flights.
“What sets Challenge Group’s charter operations apart from its peers is its end-to-end operations offer. From arranging trucking at origin, to building up the cargo, loading it onto a Challenge aircraft, flying it to a destination, unloading it and then delivering it by truck to its end destination, which could also be a to-door service. Customers can track-and-trace their charter shipments in the same way as they would a shipment on Challenge Group’s scheduled flights.”
Zak continues: “Our services are available to commercial entities as well as all NGOs, government institutions and other such organisations. Challenge Group is often called upon to fly relief goods. The fastest charter arrangement we ever carried out was the transport of humanitarian aid from the US to Poland, which we executed in just 48 hours. We are always on standby to assist with humanitarian charter requests, such as following the tragic earthquake last year in Turkey. Just hours after the devastating news, Challenge Group was planning slots and routes to multiple airports in Turkey, on call at any moment.”
Running operations of the size of these companies successfully requires considerable IT support, so software systems are needed to aid the efforts to meet each customer’s needs.
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Air Partner’s Van Der Stichele said: “We have several IT solutions in place designed to make the booking and tracking process as seamless as possible, from a bespoke customer relationship management (CRM) system through to route planning, tracking and even weather forecasting. All of this is supported by a 24/7 operations team, which is particularly helpful to smaller carriers that lean on us for support when preparing flights to places that are unfamiliar to them.”
Support internally at each cargo charter company needs to be matched externally by delivering a high level of support to customers, keeping them up to date and ensuring that all the necessary legal and operational compliances are met.
Van Der Stichele said: “We have a compliance team who work around the clock with our sister company, Baines Simmons, who qualify a carrier based on past performances. We have an internal traffic light rating system for each carrier, so if we’ve had a previous issue with them, Baines Simmons will then assist them to reach a higher operating standard through their safety training programme.
“In this way, we help carriers to keep their standards high through qualified training. Although most customers will be unaware that this is something we do, it does provide peace of mind that we take compliance and safety incredibly seriously.”
In its support for the customer, Challenge Air puts great store in detailed and thorough planning, deeming it essential to ensure smooth charter operations. The main charter routes are usually between the EU and the US, as well as the US to the Middle East and China to the EU, according to Zak.
He said: “Knowing this, blueprint operations already exist in some cases which speed up the planning, but rarer destinations require more lead-time. In all cases though, the latest regulations relevant not only for the origin and destination airports and countries, but also those countries being overflown, have to be checked and taken into account.”
Zak adds: “Aside from the required origin and destination, the commodity itself forms the basis for each charter operation – what it is, what it measures and weighs. We normally also ask for photos or technical drawings if the cargo is complex; and by using our 3D loading simulator digital tool, we can confirm the ‘loadability’ to the customer in real time.”
Alongside those details in the planning, more information about the supply chain flow is used to set the solution framework. Zak says: “That end-to-end logistic solution is the Challenge Group value proposition.”
The level of attention to detail demonstrated by these air cargo charter companies is what enables them to operate effectively. They are then in prime position to respond with speed when the load ability call comes for them to ‘go now’.
This feature was first published in Air Cargo Management – August/September 2023. To read the magazine in full, click here.