Just what will a successful cargo hub look like in the future? Although space for expansion and improvements to existing physical infrastructure are important, panelists discussing the topic during this week’s Cargo Facts EMEA Symposium in Frankfurt agreed that digital runways will become just as crucial to the success of an airport’s cargo operations as the physical runways.
Airports currently dealing with large volumes of express and e-commerce shipments are already seeing a need for better digital infrastructure but increasingly, even general cargo will benefit from the visibility of a digital and connected supply chain, said Bert Selis, cargo & logistics manager, Liege Airport. “We think that cargo should speak more and more, and all the people involved should communicate less,” said Selis. For European airports like Liege, and a number of airports elsewhere, that often means building a data-enabled cargo community where airport stakeholders can share data.
Today’s Unit load devices (ULDs), for example, are already generating data about conditions inside and external to cargo containers, but this information is not yet leveraged to the full extent that it could be. Selis argued that airports will need to play a major role in developing the digital infrastructure necessary to enable cargo to communicate with other links in the supply chain by constructing the ecosystem in which stakeholders can store and share data. Turhan Özen, chief cargo officer, Turkish Airlines, agreed, noting that automation of airport hubs will drive productivity gains.
Özen believes that if the speed of connectivity, sorting and handling at a hub is reliable, and data is integrated across operations, it will create new opportunities for air cargo as well. For Turkish, this could mean boosting the utilization of narrowbody bellyhold capacity.
“Historically for cargo people, narrowbody capacity was something that you didn’t care about. It’s difficult and takes time, it’s very small in terms of revenue and profitability, and it is unreliable because it’s subject to excess baggage,” said Özen. Turkish expects digital connectivity to improve demand forecasting for passenger bags and cargo. Knowing which routes reliably have available cargo capacity will, in turn, make narrowbody bellyhold capacity more useful.
Moving forward, airports have one of two ways to define their role in enabling cargo, said Selis. “An airport can continue acting as an organizer of physical things by building runways, ensuring landings and takeoffs and staying within clear lines of what an airport is. Alternatively, airports can consider themselves as part of something bigger, and build out digital infrastructure.”