As a result of the ongoing crisis, cargo has become an indispensable part of airlines and airports, globally. Halit Tuncer, Cargo Director – South Asia, Turkish Airlines in an exclusive interview with Ritika Arora Bhola, talks extensively about the carrier’s efficient operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, their risk management policies, and how they ensure compliance to the highest standards with seeking continuous improvement.
Turkish Airlines had reportedly been moving thousands of tonnes of medical supply. Kindly elaborate on how you maintained efficient cargo operations amid the coronavirus outbreak.
As coronavirus spread throughout the world, our most important agenda became supplying medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. There was a sudden imbalance in demand to supply ratio due to a shortage of capacity. Therefore, Turkish Airlines deployed more than 30 wide-body passenger aircrafts on top of 24 freighters to meet the demand. Now we have more than 200 flights per week operated by cargo dedicated wide-body passenger aircrafts.
What kind of precautions the airline is taking to ensure hundred per cent safety and security of products as well as staff?
We switched our staff to work from home and reduced the number of personnel in operations. Temperature checks are being done daily and PPEs are supplied to our ground staff. Hand sanitisers are already installed while office and warehouse areas are being disinfected regularly. Social distancing measures are being followed strictly within the facility as well as in-company staff transportation vehicles. We also have a medical team on duty 24×7 to ensure the well-being of our staff.
Does Turkish Cargo follow an effective risk management policy in times like these?
As this is a new global risk, we keep close coordination with local and global authorities daily to implement necessary steps on time. We maintained our operations intact by adapting to the guidelines.
How do you think COVID-19 will redefine the air cargo sector?
It is clearly understood that logistics in general, and specifically air cargo, with the ability to reach anywhere in the world within a day plays a crucial role during a global crisis. Air cargo will dominate the skies until passenger demand comes back to normal. This means more aircraft to be modified to carry cargo, and new cargo companies emerging to find themselves a place in the market. When we see the low oil prices and ever-growing e-commerce, we can easily assume the sector will continue to grow in the coming years.
Digitisation has been a hot topic for the sector since a long time and it is our focal point to achieve success in this.
The crisis has proved the importance of digitisation, and only the airlines with heavily digitised processes were able to cope up with the home-office setup, reduced operational staff requirement and minute-by-minute changing dynamics.
Turkish Airlines also had to halt its passenger and cargo flights due the ban imposed on national and international movement. Kindly share with us the challenges that you faced during this period and how did you cope up with it?
We had to halt passenger flights, but cargo flights continued operating during this period. We took all precautionary measure to maintain our operations and created a new weekly changing schedule model to cope up with the demand.
How long do you think the impact of the coronavirus would last? By when would Turkish Cargo achieve the same capacity, load factor levels and demand as it was in 2018-2019?
We are one of the few airlines that were impacted minimally in terms of capacity and load factor levels during the pandemic. Medical supply and pharma demand started to reduce; unit revenues are also declining now. Returning to 2019 levels depends mostly on the recovery of world trade and passenger demand, which is expected to take 2-3 years.
According to you, how is the air cargo industry reacting and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?
The air cargo industry has a major role in fighting the pandemic. The way the industry reacted and the efforts put in place have been remarkable. From airports to handling agents, forwarders to airlines, there is significant coordination and collaboration. I can confidently say that the industry performed extremely well while responding to the pandemic.
How has cargo operations changed as a result of coronavirus?
Due to social distancing, cargo operations had been maintained with lesser manpower. This put a lot of stress on maintaining smooth operations.
Airlines started loading cargo in passenger aircraft cabins which solely depends on manpower. As a result, loading and unloading of cargo became much more difficult and complicated.
What can governments do to facilitate the smoother flow of cargo amid such crisis?
There should be clear guidelines for the type of cargo that is allowed to be imported and exported, to ease the pressure on the industry.
Will the future of the air cargo industry be different because of this pandemic?
Until very recently, cargo divisions of many legacy airlines were a sidekick for extra revenue. Now, this has become an indispensable part of those airlines.
Air cargo will draw a lot of investment and re-organisation. Airlines are trying to change passenger aircraft orders with freighters, modifying their old passenger aircrafts to freighters to gain a stronger position in the air cargo industry.
Turkish Cargo achieved the highest growth rate among the best 25 air cargo carriers in February, according to IATA. Will you be able to maintain the same growth in the coming months?
We climbed to fifth position from eighth in the IATA FTK rating in February.
We maintained the same growth rate in March, April and May.
We surely will continue to grow aggressively. To support our growth, we are planning to move all our operations to our mega cargo hub namely `SmartIst` that is being built in the new Istanbul Airport.