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The sheer amount of human effort involved in the undertaking of air cargo is often overlooked. However, the world should thank them for standing firm on the frontline against the pandemic, understand the work pressure they have and help them to take rest mentally, while also making it open to diverse opinions, attractive to the new generation and capable of grooming inspiring leaders.

The global air transport sector supports 65.5 million jobs across passenger, cargo and tourism businesses and these jobs are 4.4 times more productive than other jobs in the world economy, according to a 2018 research released by the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG).

Research published by Novosensus in 2020 noted that first, logistics company employees rate their experiences at work at 54/100, but their engagement level is much higher at 70/100. This imbalance is unsustainable and makes logistics unattractive in the job market. Second, up to 43 percent do not experience inspiration, constructive feedback and confidence building from leaders. Third, female leaders are rated higher than men on 6 out of 7 leadership competencies, but they report a 10 percent lower employee experience.

On the frontline against Covid-19

When the Covid-19 pandemic started to spread globally in the first half of 2020, the whole world came to a standstill and a huge population was confined to their homes due to the confusion about how to handle the pandemic as well as the closing of borders. However, along with the healthcare sector, air cargo was one of the industries that couldn’t go on to the back foot since the world had to treat its Covid-19 patients as well as provide e-commerce goods to those stuck in their homes.  In fact, the industry did very well to help the world fight against the pandemic but it also had to bring many of its human resources to the frontline of the battle.

Glyn Hughes, director general, The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) thinks that the whole world owes a collective appreciation to them. “Before the world knew how to treat or protect from this new virus, cargo crews, handlers, truckers and freight forwarders were already mobilising missions to countries infected. Carriers and staff representatives, particularly flight crews, developed solutions around staff safety to protect from infection when flying into the unknown,” he said.

In this process, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown how important cargo professionals are to the world. Hendrik Leyssens, vice president, global operations – cargo, Swissport, said, “These essential workers were key to help make sure that the global supply chains remained functional and strong. The air cargo industry is crucial for keeping the supermarkets stocked and has played a major role in the global distribution of PPE and vaccines.”

Air cargo professionals across the world showed resilience, humility and flexibility; supporting each other in overcoming the challenges. dnata executive vice president Steve Allen asserted, “Our teams around the world adjusted their processes to cope with the new operating environment and worked closely with partners to maintain global trade and the flow of essential goods including PPE, life-saving medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. At the same time, we adapted quickly to safeguard our workforce with the provision of PPE, training and revised operating procedures to reflect physical distancing.”

On the same line, Volga-Dnepr Group marketing director Fedor Novikov hopes that this will stimulate additional investments, proper infrastructure development and talent acquisition. “They risked their lives continuing working offline (operations, pilots, loadmasters) and operating to the countries affected by Covid-19. At the same time, people working online have done tremendous work organizing dedicated deliveries with PPE, medical equipment, mobile hospitals and laboratories,” he said.

“Before the world knew how to treat or protect from this new virus, they were already mobilising missions to countries infected to bring in urgent PPE and medical supplies” Glyn Hughes, TIACA

Work culture nuances in air cargo

The global workforce of the air cargo industry is divided across different ranks and capacities but the range of dynamics involved in their operations are very similar as they have to respond to every new development in the world. The industry needs to have strict protocols, standard operating procedures and regulations in order to stay safe from dangerous goods. Thus the work culture followed in these ecosystems also plays a crucial role. 

Hughes observed that the industry is over 110 years old and throughout its history has had to deal with ever-changing situations which were most evident at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic. “It seems that whatever happens to planet earth air cargo gets impacted, from social, humanitarian, economic, health, weather, generational, industrial, conflict etc which in turn has created the work culture of constant preparedness for the unknown,” he said.  

Work culture in the air cargo industry could be described as highly dynamic and flexible. They have to adapt themselves to the new circumstances every time. Thus, to improve efficiency and service delivery, the work culture should be based on team spirit. Leyssens noted that when working in teams as a part of a long and highly connected chain of service providers, collaboration is very important. “The air cargo industry very much relies on this team spirit, not only amongst colleagues but also in a broader sense within all members of the air cargo community. What distinguishes our people from other industries is the passion that they have for what we do. How many stories are around of people leaving our industry but returning afterwards as they can’t get enough of the environment,” he asked.

According to Novikov air cargo is still a sector with no strict boundaries and almost all the managers could be reached to a certain extent via various communication channels. “This also an area of open opportunities with growth prospects for young specialists, as well as experienced personnel and the entry-level is manageable,” he said. 

Safety is an important parameter to scale the work culture followed by air cargo companies as the operations involve many dangerous goods and sensitive materials that require careful handling and educated expertise. This becomes important because there are cases of fire and explosion that struck airports while handling different commodities like smartphones with lithium batteries.

Allen noted that dnata promotes ‘Safe Culture’ through systemic processes, while also implementing a ‘Just Culture’ across the business. “Just Culture means that our people are not punished for mistakes they make as a result of lack of experience or training, but the organization will not accept negligence, intentional violations of safety procedures or company policies, or destructive actions.”

“Just Culture means that our people are not punished for mistakes they make as a result of lack of experience or training, but the organization will not accept negligence.” Steve Allen, dnata

Mental health in a stressful industry

As a severely dynamic industry, human resources also need to adapt to new developments by handling uncertain situations and huge pressure comes along with it.  It often requires rapid decision making and clear thinking. Since the industry has been on full throttle for 18 months, it has also been critical that companies monitor staff wellbeing to ensure sufficient downtime to rest and recuperate is granted.

Leyssens observed that their services are very labour-intensive and require a lot of competent and motivated staff to make a difference. “We recognize this by making sure our staff is well trained, with a lot of opportunities for learning and development and attention to wellbeing. A big part of well-being is a sense of accomplishment and pride. That is why at Swissport it is very important for us to recognize the many achievements of our cargo staff.”

For example, dnata created a special task force to regularly review workplace and operational protocols as new medical information on Covid-19 became available. Allen said, “The task force included mental health specialists, as well as representatives from HR, communications, training and operations. This group met daily for the first four months of the pandemic, and continues to meet regularly to ensure the health and wellbeing needs of the work population are being met.”

Novikov went into detail to discuss the measures adopted by the Volga Dnepr Group to create comfortable conditions for personnel and beneficial for their mental health. “First, we create comfortable working conditions both in the office and work-from-home environments. Secondly, we introduce a personnel package for sports activities, organizing dedicated sports webinars, or initiating sports activities. And finally, we look after the health of our personnel by organizing regular medical checks,” he said. 

Donna Mullins, vice president, Kale Info Solutions, the USA arm of Kale Logistics Solutions, noted that at the whole world is focused on physical health and that does bring a certain amount of stress to the mental health of us all. “Except for those individuals who must be physically onsite to move cargo, most companies continue to help with the mental anguish of having to maintain virtual classrooms at their homes and still be available to service their clients remotely,” she said.

Marta E Ramirez, global vice president, human resources, PayCargo informed that mental health is an issue they pay a lot of attention to at PayCargo. “We have a wellness focus day every week, alerting all employees to keep the focus on overall wellbeing,” she said.

Making air cargo more inclusive

Making air cargo more gender-inclusive is one topic that is on the table right now.  Novosensus report noted that female talents are under-utilised, and there is an unhealthy gender imbalance on all manager and leadership levels in the logistics industry. The same is for the air cargo industry as experts agree.

Novikov opined that balanced teams with balanced views could create a more amiable and diversified working environment. “It is great to see that the diversity issue has been at the frontline with the leading industry organizations, like TIACA and IATA,” he said.

Hughes notes that the air cargo industry is here to serve the entire planet and the industry needs to mirror the community to which it serves. “We must provide the right working environment in order to create a fully inclusive workforce that does not discriminate or restrict based on gender, age, religion, ethnicity, ability, education, sexual orientation or any other factor which make us unique as individuals,” he said. 

Ramirez observed that we are still far from a fully inclusive diverse environment; however, the gap is being closed. “At PayCargo, we continue to be diligent while recruiting and selecting for leadership roles with the goal in mind to increase the number of women who join PayCargo, as well as developing more women for promotion opportunities,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mullins differed to note that the air cargo industry has a long history of embracing women from all backgrounds and ethnicities and they have always maintained strong leadership roles in the industry.

Allen informed that over the past years, dnata have taken several initiatives to empower women across their operations to progress their careers and achieve their full potential.

“Across dnata’s global operations, women are employed in wide-ranging job roles covering all major operational, commercial and support functions. Women are represented in almost all seniority levels within the company, including executive management as well as various technical roles. These include specialised operational roles such as cargo loadmasters, ramp operations team leaders, turnaround coordinators and flight dispatchers,” he said.

“It is great to see that the diversity issue has been at the frontline with the leading industry organizations, like TIACA and IATA.” Fedor Novikov, Volga-Dnepr Group


Leaders that inspire 

The success of every industry weighs heavily upon the people who lead. They need to inspire, have a clear vision and mobilize others to do the right things by creating the right working environment. 

According to Hughes,“Thankfully this industry is blessed with truly great leaders, and I have had the honour of learning from many of them.”

Allen believes that learning and growth happen at all levels. “We make sure to announce job vacancies internally first to promote from within. This approach works. Many of our best employees have been with us for over 20 years, rising through the ranks to positions where they can mentor those coming up behind them.”

Novikov also thinks that it is important to have leaders who have followed the career path development within one company and have grown from the specialist to the top level. “This is the case for our group where almost all our managers have been with the company long enough and went through different management levels,” he said.

Attracting new generation

It is not just important to help the current workforce to deal with the complexities of the industry, but also to create a future set of human beings who would love to work in logistics and air cargo. Particularly, when considering the disruptions caused by technology to cause job loss and the need for leadership.

For example, The International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s FACE (Future Air Cargo Executives) programme aims to attract individuals under 36 to prepare them to become the next generation of leaders in the cargo industry by investing in people, promote gender diversity, and engage young talent.

Allen informed that they encourage their people to develop their skills and then support them to develop into new roles. “Our talent management framework helps us identify our top talent and provide them with the appropriate development, training and career opportunities,” he said.

Novikov noted that they support university students and graduates through a dedicated Volga Dnepr “New generation” program. “The program aims to guarantee continuity of generations/personnel and share of experience and expertise. We are open to all the areas - sales, MRO, operations, office, and welcome newcomers. Besides, the Group has been working with other aviation institutes, universities, and colleges in Russia to support its talent management program and attract young, ambitious and result-driven alumni,” he noted.

Ramirez informed that PayCargo liaises with local and national universities to build a strong pipeline of future talented individuals. “Currently, we are building development programmes and identifying individuals with leadership abilities to groom for future promotions that will benefit the cargo industry,” she said.

Leyssens said, “Whether it’s in making changes to the working environment, offering internal career opportunities or leadership development, this has been a focus area for us to ensure that we can attract industry talent. Additionally, we are focusing on giving our colleagues the tools they need to execute their day-to-day activities. We are deploying many new technologies to support them and make their work easier.”

“How many stories are around of people leaving our industry but returning afterwards as they can’t get enough of the environment.” Hendrik Leyssens, Swissport 

Tech disruption on jobs

Air cargo business is becoming increasingly technology-oriented and data-driven, which is changing the way they handle cargo on a day to day basis and how they manage the business. So it is also important to have sync between the technology and its human resource. The technology could both destroy certain jobs as well as create new job opportunities. 

Hughes noted that the key aspect of technology or any tool designed to support work efficiency is to harness the opportunity that it presents and use that newfound efficiency to create new opportunities. “Air logistics is a complex interlinked industry which relies heavily on information about shipment specificities.  If AI and digital solutions can pre-empt and accelerate relevant information or more rapidly establish contingency plans when shipment disruptions occur then the industry can enhance its service offering and quality levels.  This will, in turn, create new job opportunities and staff reskilling will ensure adequately trained professionals can take full advantage.”

In the end, air cargo needs to make the work easier and simpler, thus the core principles such as flexibility and teamwork remain very central in the work culture. Leyssens said, “As competition increases, air cargo handlers are looking to reinvent themselves and continuously improve their ways of working. Swissport is investing in digitization and introducing new technologies to continuously strengthen its position in this regard. As digitization is entering the workplace, the job and the working environment are changing.”

“More digitization (ULD tracking, self-service kiosks, Swissport’s new cargo app & handhelds, information sharing platforms such as Validaide) is requiring more multi-skilled staff and is upgrading the function of the cargo handler. Swissport always looks at the frontline staff perspective for every technology project we run,” he added. 

With airlines’ increased focus on cargo business and the role it played during the pandemic, it will attract more investment and people into the industry. However, it will be interesting to see how the global airfreight industry will utilize them towards a future that is more inclusive, mental health-focused, leadership-oriented, preparing them for the next pandemic or any challenge of that sort.

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