A jumbo task: How cargo charters come together

Cathay Pacific Cargo fulfils C.H. Robinson’s request for freighter charters to deliver urgent PPE supplies to Australia

Booking your own Boeing 747 freighter for cargo charters can be a mammoth undertaking – it’s a jumbo jet, after all, and it takes a lot to fill one up. While Cathay Pacific Cargo runs a full freighter schedule, it does sometimes have the capacity to offer its aircraft to the charter market for customers who have big-volume, outsized or very urgent shipments that need to go somewhere fast, and possibly off the network.

From an airline perspective, cargo charters can be a complex issue involving aircraft and crew availability, preparing ground handling agents (GHAs), securing take-off and landing slots, and various permissions linked to airports, customs and the nature of the cargo itself. But for customers, this ad-hoc market often comes with short and pressing lead times. How can this tension be smoothed out, even more so now as cargo capacity is limited by reduced passenger flights?

Frank Wu, Cathay Pacific’s Cargo Global Partnerships Manager, says: ‘Every charter request has to go through a panoramic review. While we strive to provide a solution that can satisfy our customers’ needs, we also need to ensure they are commercially and operationally justifiable for us under our tight aircraft rotations.’

So how quickly can a flight request be turned around, given these constraints? Wu says: ‘It can be done in a week, depending on the destination. One of the fascinating things about air cargo is that it is extremely dynamic, so responsiveness is key.’

One customer who is very appreciative of this philosophy is Colin Dunne, Airfreight Manager Oceania for C.H. Robinson, based in Melbourne. ‘In an ordinary year, CH Robinson might request around 200 charters,’ he says.

Colin Dunne, Airfreight Manager Oceania for C.H. Robinson

But this is not an ordinary year, and as part of the rush to ensure that retailers and the regional heath authority in the Australian state of Victoria had the right volume of personal protection equipment (PPE) stocked in April to deal with COVID-19, Dunne needed to source a lot of freighters to deliver quickly. ‘Altogether, the approximate weight for these flights was around 1.2 million kilos,’ he says.

The shipments needed to get from Shanghai to Melbourne, and Dunne’s first thought was to use Cathay Pacific Cargo. ‘We’ve been working with them for a long time – with the export team in Australia, and we import from the Americas and Europe – so we’re very well spread and have multiple relationships at different levels,’ he says. ‘Working with Cathay is part of a long-term strategy and partnership. We didn’t just try and book 10 flights in an overheated market. We picked the partner we work with so that our client can get the best of both ourselves and our partners to ensure an overall positive result – and that’s the key to our success.’

Loading a Cathay Pacific Boeing 747 for cargo charters

Back at Cathay, Sam Tsang, Global Account Manager, says: ‘Our work starts the moment we receive an inquiry. We may not be given much detail on the cargo at the outset, but we make an assessment on our aircraft availability and capacity with our planning teams before we reply to the customer. It is a complicated process, both internally and externally, but it’s made less complex by their support.’

In this instance, Dunne says he and Cathay Pacific worked to an estimated timeline of 48 hours to position an aircraft into Shanghai at about 10 days out from the flight. ‘We discussed our very large order book with our customer at the beginning, and we had approximate schedule dates from the suppliers, and we had to tie the release dates from suppliers with the availability of aircraft,’ he says. ‘The scheduling of those flights would be based around knowing that the supplier would have “X” amount of cargo on this day, so we needed to be there with a flight on that day. And if Cathay could meet that 48-hour window, we would all work to achieve a specified departure time. The pressure was on!’

But within that pressure and by working together, Cathay and C.H. Robinson were able to build in some flexibility if there were sudden changes in production or changing customs export requirements, some of which saw other aircraft departing from Shanghai empty. Dunne says: ‘By working with Cathay and the suppliers as one logistics team, we could make sure everything coordinated well and every flight was successful.’

Tsang says: ‘The charter solution has real value in providing not just a guarantee in capacity at this time when passenger flights are limited, but also offers reliable transit times to keep supply chains alive. As a carrier, we always think one step ahead in helping customers with their end-to-end logistics needs.’

The shipments turned out to be timely, as the state of Victoria experienced a second wave of infections. Dunne says: ‘[The cargo charters] were a success for everybody – for us, for Cathay and for the community – because all that cargo is here, and more importantly, the local government departments are prepared.’