The air cargo industry is on the cusp of major change and now is the time for companies to take a leadership role in new ways of doing business, says Etihad Aviation Group’s senior vice-president of sales and cargo Martin Drew.

    The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown up unbelievable challenges for the air cargo industry, yet it has also, unexpectedly, presented us with an opportunity to entirely reposition the sector from a necessary ecosystem supplier into a highly responsible and innovative economic and social driver.

    Among the social shifts accelerated by the pandemic is doing business with companies and organisations that demonstrate high levels of trust, respect, product integrity and social purpose. Rather than just respond to these new business currencies, the air cargo industry can, indeed, seize a leadership role.

    Over the years air cargo has played a vital, yet often unsung, role in humanitarian relief efforts worldwide. We at Etihad Cargo, being the cargo arm of the UAE national carrier and a key partner of Abu Dhabi’s and UAE governments’ global humanitarian efforts, have put our IATA CEIV certified ‘PharmaLife’ expertise for pharmaceuticals transportation, our fleet and our network at the disposal of relief efforts when and where needed – an ever-heightened focus during the past year. In recent weeks, we have extended our government support to provide airlift for medical supplies for India. While India has remained a key market for us, it was important that we showed our support to the nation and provide our expertise to aid the current situation.

    Towards the end of 2020, Etihad Cargo joined the Hope Consortium – a ‘first-of-its-kind’ complete supply chain collective between the private and public sectors, across health, port, airline, airport and freight forwarding partners to aid global Covid-19 vaccine distribution.

    Via the consortium, we have demonstrated how we leverage collective expertise and extensive network capabilities to provide essential logistical solutions to where and when they are most needed. The model allows the storage of more than 120 million vaccines at Abu Dhabi’s advanced cold and ultra-cold storage hub and align our deliveries with the ability of recipient countries and communities to absorb these supplies safely, thereby addressing any potential vaccine wastage.

    Realising that vaccine delivery is often not enough, we have recently launched our first in-country vaccination service, which is unique in the Covid-19 immunisation space. This combines vaccine delivery with rapid on-ground deployment of medical and logistics experts, staff and equipment. The combined service enables countries and communities with limited medical and logistical capacities to vaccinate their populations quickly and efficiently, with additional training for local medical and logistics personnel to ‘future-proof’ efforts.

    The combined achievements of the consortium have highlighted how supply chain resilience emanates from having the right mix of partners, products and solutions, particularly in addressing the cold-chain complexities that come with the vaccine supply chain, as well as tight alignment on shared values and complementary capabilities.

    Extending our support, we have signed a five-year MoU with UNICEF to aid its ‘Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative’. This now sees us collaborate on the distribution of vaccines and essential medicines, medical devices and humanitarian supplies and support immunisation programmes for the world’s most vulnerable children. This partnership is in line with the Etihad Aviation Group’s commitment to improve the wellbeing of people everywhere and underpins Abu Dhabi’s international role in providing humanitarian aid to build a safer world. 

    While the immediate impact of these efforts is the delivery of vital vaccine, medical and relief aid to communities in need, there will be longer term impact including the strengthening of our brand perception as one of commitment, a brand to be trusted, respected and which engages in real social development.

    All this matters because we believe our industry is on the cusp of major change where, apart from shifting customer relationships, we will need to forge solid third-party outsourcing alliances to provide for extensive product development and operational efficiencies. Our relief work has demonstrated our robust credentials as a reliable partner, and we continue to leverage our expertise to provide temperature-controlled products when it is needed most. 

    It matters because we need, like all other industry sectors, to embrace digitalisation, automation and innovation to better respond to fluctuations in demand, unforeseen volatility and intelligent forecasting. This will mean we will need to attract the right talent – the disruptors and innovators who will put the industry at the forefront of the transformation curve, not just reactively responding to it.

    But in attracting the talent, we will have another challenge on our hands. The innovators of tomorrow will be in high demand and surveys shows these disruptors, largely of the millennial generation Y, are choosy when deciding who should benefit from their expertise. This is the generation that demands change; that wants to make a difference and create a social impact while having access to personal development opportunities. We must show our industry is where their talents belong – in a profession ready to invest in technology, product development and education.

    Education and training have always been a key pillar of our internal development, and as a member of IATA’s ‘Time and Temperature Working Group’ we are expanding on investment in this area. Our membership sees us assisting an ongoing education programme which has already reached a worldwide audience of over 600 professionals.

    So, in delivering what matters most – the vital relief that makes for a better, safer and healthier world for all – we are also delivering what must now matter most to our industry: professionalism, product integrity, reliability and trust. By doing so, we all stand to gain.