‘The nature of air cargo has changed,’ says Calvin Hui, Head of Cargo Operations Hong Kong and the GBA. ‘Take for example the stringent temperature requirements of some of the vaccine shipments. Requirements are much more demanding these days. In the past, we used to focus on “flown as booked” and “delivered as promised”, but that is the just the basic of the basic.’
The present and future of airfreight, and how Cathay Cargo handles it, has been subject to consultation with customers and feedback from the wider industry. In essence, needs were identified for better communication, more shipment visibility and a higher quality, more consistent handling: especially as volumes of time- and temperature-sensitive shipments increase.
‘We listened to our customers,’ says Hui. ‘They told us operational reliability and customer service are top criteria in selecting an airline partner. They want to know the status of their shipment throughout its journey, and even more importantly they want to be kept informed in the event of any deviation to the plan.’
This combination of technology, transparency, communication and service has led Cathay Cargo to work not only on a refresh of its specialised air cargo solutions, but the introduction of next-generation track-and-trace through Ultra Track and the formation of the Operation Control Centre (OCC) to monitor and proactively manage shipments. ‘We want to give our customers peace of mind and to be available around the clock,’ he adds.
Hui is sitting in the COC (Cargo Operation Centre), which is the Cathay Cargo outpost in the Cathay Cargo Terminal. It is from here that the team, in Cathay Pacific uniforms, manages shipments going through Hong Kong: either as joining or as transit cargo, and oversees the outsourced work in the warehouse, such as build-up and acceptance. This is carried out by Cathay Pacific Services Ltd and its contractors who operate the terminal, with loading and unloading outsourced to another Cathay subsidiary, Hong Kong Airport Services Ltd (HAS).
It is also here that the OCC is based: close to the data and close to the shipments. This is an experienced and multi-skilled team, which works 24/7 focusing on shipment care, which goes far beyond ‘flown as booked’; it means preserving shipment integrity by taking proactive action, and liaising directly with customers. ‘The OCC’s core “always on” function is being a control tower for managing shipment care solutions,’ Hui explains. ‘In effect, the OCC plays an important role in delivering the service and expertise outlined in our “We Know How” campaign.’
Meeting cargo customer demands
This is important as the market develops in train with technological advances, ‘More cargo nowadays has temperature-control requirements,’ says Hui, ‘and customers expect visibility over their shipments and complete trust that their shipments will be handled with care.’
The OCC team monitors each and every Ultra Track shipment through Cathay Cargo’s Internet of Things (IoT) data-loggers, and those from other suppliers. The devices transmit information about a shipment’s location and temperature, among other measurements. The OCC responds to alerts 24 hours a day if the system thinks the shipment may be heading towards a temperature excursion. If so, that may lead to a trip to the terminal to top up dry ice levels or charge cooltainer batteries.
‘We’ve had some cases where we received an alert and found that it was a malfunction that we couldn’t remedy,’ says Hui. ‘We immediately put the shipment into the cool room so it was protected and called the cooltainer service provider to find a replacement – and these shipments were flown as booked because of the quick reaction time.’
The OCC also monitors thermal dolly requests from sales teams from outports. ‘Hong Kong is hot in the summer, so when we’re carrying these temperature-controlled shipments, we can arrange a thermal dolly service, which can carry a cooltainer in temperature-controlled safety,’ Hui adds.
And there are more ways the team can protect these shipments from prolonged ambient exposure, as Cargo Officer Henry Yu explains. ‘As we’re well prepared and in touch with outports we can also arrange the aircraft to park in the nearest parking bay to shorten transfer times.’
It’s good to talk…
One of the key areas that digitalisation has enabled is in comms. The OCC team is also the point of contact for live chat with Ultra Track customers and those using some tiers of Cathay Priority shipments. ‘Live chat enables us to talk directly to customers in a convenient and quick way,’ says Hui.
There are more developments to come here, particularly with one of air cargo’s day-to-day inconveniences – the offload. ‘Offloads can be caused by a number of things – flight delays affecting tight connection times, weather, customs inspections or mechanical issues,’ says Yu. It’s never great news, but already Hui is looking ahead to improve the customer experience.
This again will involve live chat, but a new and enhanced version. ‘We’re looking at improving offload protection, and two-way communication,’ says Hui. ‘If a shipment has been offloaded, we want to proactively tell the customer and give them information about the flight it will be reprotected to. We want them to talk to us, and they might say they actually want a later flight because of a logistics arrangement on the arrival side, for example. So we want to open that channel to talk directly with our customers.’
Shipment care developments
Cathay Cargo recently conducted a customer survey to help establish future developments in shipment care. ‘We learned that our customers rank operational reliability and service as top considerations,’ says Hui. ‘The OCC will take on this remit to deliver more shipment care services, including swifter service recovery and communications through an array of agile projects that will be able to respond to market needs as they change.’
Other developments are enabling customers to monitor shipments themselves using the Ultra Track platform, opening up the possibility of new ways to track shipments in real-time. Having worked on earlier versions of Ultra Track in his old role, Hui is now overseeing its enhancements. ‘We now offer our customers a direct connection with us through the control tower concept,’ he says. ‘Our customers can now see the shipment data if they connect their system with an API using IATA’s ONE Record API standard. If they do, they can see the readings using their own interface or software. That’s now in place.’
And with IoT data loggers now appearing in cooltainers, individual pharma cartons, as well as being placed in ULDs, there are moves to evolve the service to unify this data through IATA’s ONE Record API with Ultra Track. ‘Rather than limiting it to our own very specific device, we should allow customers to use their own and take advantage of some of the latest cooltainers,’ Hui says. ‘We shouldn’t be limiting the technology, because we aren’t selling the hardware, we’re selling the service that the OCC monitors.’
So the future looks exciting, and will be one based on better communication with customers, all the while leveraging the agile skills amassed from introducing greater digitalisation and refreshed shipment solutions.
Frosti Lau is GM Cargo Service Delivery, and is focused on developing shipment care along with safety in this new and dynamic cargo market to help Cathay Cargo stay ahead of the pack.
‘We are investing more in shipment care,’ he says. ‘We are dedicated not only to achieving flown as booked, but also the added-value benefits of shipment care. We see these as a differentiator. If we are to attain our ambition of being the world’s best air-cargo services provider, we have to put our customers first, and we will offer them more touchpoints that will be enabled through the OCC team.’
For the OCC’s Henry Yu, the philosophy is simple: ‘I enjoy helping people to resolve their problems,’ he says. He’s ready and waiting.