Despite being severely impacted by the pandemic, ground handling firms continued with stocking and supply of products 24×7 that included time-critical and sensitive pharmaceutucals, medical equipment, essential commodities, and now COVID-19  vaccines. Turkey-headquartered Çelebi Aviation, one of the largest independent ground handling companies in India, has been in the country for more than a decade now, carrying out ground handling operations at seven major airports of the country, including Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kochi, Ahmedabad and Kannur. In addition to ground handling services, the company also provides cargo and warehousing services in its Delhi Airport cargo terminal which was previously wholly run by the government. A joint venture between DIAL and Çelebi Ground Handling Turkey, Çelebi Delhi Cargo Terminal Management India is currently one of the largest cargo terminals by volume in the country. Kamesh Peri, CEO, Çelebi Delhi Cargo Terminal Management India,who had joined the company in mid of March 2021, elaborates about the plethora of challenges brought in by the pandemic but how they maneuvered and now geared up to capture additional opportunities with India Inc scaling up the largest ongoing vaccination drive. The air cargo veteran also discusses about the domestic cargo handling infrastructure at airports and how government initiatives like ‘Self-Reliant India’ can befit the country at large, improvements that are essential for the country to reach its full potential. Excerpts from his interaction with Ritika Arora Bhola.

With over three decades of experience of working with the Aviation and Air Cargo Business internationally, how has the journey been? So far, how has the experience been shaping at Çelebi?

I have experience of over 30 years of working with the air cargo and aviation business with brands like Lufthansa Cargo and Menzies Aviation. Overall, I believe I have a good understanding of the business. I recently joined Çelebi in India. I am still finding my feet here. The last few months were quite challenging for us due to the ongoing second wave of the pandemic. Though, we had the operations running throughout the day. We had essential supplies like medical equipment and oxygen containers coming in 24×7 and we were able to efficiently handle those in bulk at a very short notice having been prepared for the various scenarios. At the same time, we were also very much concerned about the health and safety of our workers.

At present, I see we have gone past the challenging times, things are now returning back to normal. I can attest that in these trying times, Çelebi has done extraordinary well for its clients and their businesses while continuing to assure safety of our workers by following all the COVID-19 protocols, guidelines and practices and further monitoring the situations very closely.

Could you elaborate on the best operating models and strategies you are planning to bring in to enhance functioning of Çelebi India utilising your sectoral experience and expertise of many years?

As a cargo terminal operator, we need to keep elevating the mood and productivity in the workplace in line with international standards and using the right equipment and systems to boost performance. We also have to look at space utilisation and optimisation of available capacity because unlike other operations, our capacity is limited in terms of the layout that has been allocated to us by the particular airport.

At Çelebi, the focus has always been on how to optimise space and capacity and run efficient operations. My remit and my aim would be to take this strategy forward and mark an evolution in action.

Together with my team, I would look at implementing ways to enhance our capacity both on the imports and exports gateways. This will help us track the growth that we have envisioned for the future, exploring how to manage the layout in a much more efficient manner, through some restructuring and designing and investing in new material handling systems for a combination of better utilisation of space and greater efficiency of operations. We will bring in advanced technology and superior IT-enabled business capabilities.

Last year, we initiated paperless transactions, e-karting of orders in order to keep in place a touchless environment. As such, we will try to do more things which are intelligent and systems-driven and more automised and we would make use of technology to bring in more efficiency to whole operations.

As we go back to pre-COVID growth levels, we are making sure we manage the capacity in line with the growth expectations.

In what ways do you think India really stands to benefit from the business localisation proposition or ‘Atmanirbharta’?

‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ initiative by the government is all about trying to do everything in-house by using the expertise and experience gained by the industry stakeholders over time. If we talk particularly about the aviation business, a lot of people have a good understanding of it. To start with, we can go for tie ups with foreign companies who are into aviation or air cargo business and those who have expertise in the specified fields. Significantly, the industry will find ways to become more successful and connected. To encourage players, the government can relax certain existing norms for foreign investors.

Therefore, I feel it’s all in understanding the kind of opportunities that exists, how the business can be expanded, how the sector could be made attractive for both domestic and international players. Once the economies of scale come into play, players would be more interested to step into this sector as it has the potential to grow and develop into a decent preposition.

With airports expanding in non-metro cities, there will certainly be many opportunities to offer. Industry players by using their own experience, expertise, advanced technologies, capabilities and in collaboration with the foreign players can start developing services within the country that would be fulfilling the formation of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat.’

Besides, there are several reputed tech companies in India and they should magnify the growth. They must focus on developing technologies and smart solutions for the aviation/air cargo business and be innovative in the current environment. All these would be steps in the right direction. By combining the government and industry efforts, everyone will stand to win.

India’s growing industrial manufacturing is putting pressure on logistics and transportation infrastructure, and importantly the government is starting to feel that. According to you, what improvements are essential for the country to reach its full potential?

First and foremost is to understand the kind of infrastructure that the logistics industry currently has, second is to understand which areas need development. Lastly, the need is to check if the accuracy of policy frameworks and if the government is ready to take forward the initiatives.

If you look at India’s the top infrastructure companies like Adani, they have got huge potential, expertise and capabilities to improve the current infrastructure. They should just look at ways to work towards it. In India, development of roads, ports and terminals infrastructure is required in terms of reach and network. No doubt, a lot has been done, but a lot is still to be done.

Even to capture the huge domestic Indian market, we need to have best-in-class infrastructure to connect different hotspots spread across the country. Time has come to start looking at the captive demand which is still available in the country, to understand and create the right infrastructure, cater to the demand and be able to sell a good business preposition, which is again the core motive of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ supporting ease of doing business. So, if the government makes taxation and finances easier and convenient for the industry stakeholdersand creates transparency, then there is good scope to improve the infrastructure. This will ultimately help India realise its US$5 trillion dollar economy objective.

The current government is totally committed to work in the right direction because the authorities have finally realised that importance of having superior infrastructure for conducting highly efficient and reliable business operations, for meeting growing expectations and to compete at the global level.

With the pandemic, we have seen the need for companies to start digitising. How is Çelebi India digitalising its operations?

From an IT perspective, the focus is on three key areas:

Enhancing the digital ecosystem: Çelebi saw the pandemic as a catalyst for digitisation. While we drove a host of enhancements on our core cargo management software, the focus was on improving the efficiency of our operations without halting projects. Even if those may have not brought immediate returns but improvements yield as operations continued driven by process monitoring and data analysis solutions.

Çelebi joined hands with Delhi Airport to be one of the early partners to ensure complete electronic integration of their e-gate pass policy, thereby reducing physical contact of a person in gaining entry to the cargo complex besides making the entire process hassle-free.

We were also swift in adopting government electronic norms as and when mandated, and was recognised as the first to comply with the e-invoicing mandate set by the centre during the first COVID wave. We were further appreciated by the government as being one of the top adopters having the highest transactions on the government portal in the subsequent months.

Streamlining the interfaces: IT infrastructure was streamlined rapidly by moving about 60 per cent of the in-house servers on to the cloud and decommissioning them locally, increasing their reliability and stability. IT BCP drills were conducted to ensure that critical applications were always available and there was no hindrance to operations. Wi-Fi was upgraded in the cargo terminal to have seamless coverage across the office space.

Rush to bolster data security: While many organisations around the world took to working remotely, Çelebi envisioned, quite early, the need to improve information security and bolster cyber security initiatives. We underwent a rigorous ISO 27001 audit and certification and looked at every minute aspect of our information security measures and identified opportunities and room for improvement. With increased remote interactions, secure VPN was provisioned for all users, multi-factor authentication to secure login into key systems and E-mail spam protection measures were put in place to reduce phishing and hacking attempts. The large number of desktops and laptops were upgraded to the latest windows versions with the latest security patches. Additionally, a centralised Security Operations Centre was setup to monitor every network endpoint and perform detailed Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing of the infrastructure.

We foresaw the need to adopt GDPR compliance norms in India and initiated measures towards it to ensure that we were safeguarding not just ourselves but also looking at the needs of our European customers where such compliance is the norm. Further, looking at safety of our own employees, Çelebi went on to upgrade its Biometric Systems to zero contact authentications through intelligent smart facial scanners as against fingerprint readers.

As Çelebi looks forward to 2022 and beyond, we continue to push the boundaries of technology initiatives like automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) for cargo handling and management, evaluating the use of autonomous vehicles, pursuing accelerated digitisation as the standard while leveraging intelligent technologies like Blockchain, AI and IoT as the blueprint for survival.

Could you tell us about on your growth plans and in which areas you see the company exceeding?

We at Çelebi India have a decent infrastructure for handling all types of cargoes especially perishables and pharmaceuticals. When the demand rises, for example, during the year 2020 when COVID-19 started, there was a rise in imports of pharmaceuticals, PPE Kits and other essential supplies and we were ready to stock and enable its safe transit through the airports where we operate. When the discovery of a potential COVID-19 vaccine was reached at, we were informed that two Indian companies will be producing it for the domestic as well as international markets and we were ready with world-class handling and transportation requirements. Right now, with the country’s growing focus on distribution of the vaccines in the domestic market, we stand ready to enhance capacity at our end as and when needed considering we have the funds, equipment, space and expertise as needed. As of now, for the given volumes being handled to and from Delhi Airport to international destinations, our huge perishable centre has helped sustain as well as expedite the process with the adequate capacity available.

Lastly, we would like to know your views on the current scenario of the Indian air cargo and ground handling sector, considering a likely third wave to hit businesses. Where does India stand globally?

India has come a long way. The momentum was built at a time when the airports were being privatised—so the catalyst, whether be it the Greenfield airports at Bangalore and Hyderabad or other big airports like MIAL and DIAL handed over to the private players, we could see a huge change towards what is being done to improve the infrastructure at airports and bring the whole ecosystem at par with the international standards which is a very important part of the process.

There’s a sea of change in the airports now—cargo terminals, passenger terminals—the infrastructure has remarkably improved than it was before privatisation. Everything has changed—from its appearance, performance, safety and security, customer service, etc. Today, the airport infrastructure of India could very well be classified or categorised as world-class or truly international.

The public-private partnership (PPP) model is now an important and excellent initiative as it involves the expertise and drives initiatives in place complemented by government agencies and authorities who make up for an integral part of the airport ecosystem of India. This blend seems to nurture and to unlock the growth potential by facilitating best solutions for airports to go forward after privatisation. That said, we will soon see efficient and prosperous airports outside metro cities as well.

Cargo handling and ground handling are an integral part of the airport ecosystem, so if overall infrastructure of airport improves and the strategy and focus is towards taking it to higher levels then there’s huge scope that the whole aviation community would benefit from. This will lead to development of everything related to the airport—airline performance, PAX operations, ground handling, etc.

Along with that, there’s opportunity to develop more like MRO and leasing. India is now looking to work with homegrown companies rather than outsiders—for aircraft leasing, airport equipment leasing. Sooner or later, this will all add up to become a solution which is going to be ideal and will benefit airport users.

Overall, the idea should be to build on the growth mechanisms and ensure prosperity of the community.

Airports through its capability and infrastructure should contribute towards economic prosperity, sustainable growth and generate employment opportunities. And I believe the country is on the right trajectory.

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