Interview: Glyn Hughes, TIACA Director General

Glyn Hughes, director general of The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA), discusses the challenges faced by the air cargo industry during the pandemic, from mobilizing to deliver COVID-19 vaccines globally to coping with the reduction in passenger aircraft belly capacity.


Helen Massy-Beresford:

Hi, thanks for joining me. I'm Helen Massy-Beresford with Aviation Week, and today I'm speaking to Glyn Hughes who took over as director general of TIACA, The International Air Cargo Association, in February. Thanks for joining us, Glyn. We're now a few months into the global effort to transport COVID-19 vaccinations around the world. How do you think the air cargo industry as a whole has been performing so far?

Glyn Hughes:

Well, first of all, thank you, Helen, for inviting me to join you during this particular series of discussions. And I think it's a great question to start, because one of the things that's true of the air cargo industry in any times is its preparedness for, as it were, any eventuality that arises. So whilst, as you say, the vaccines have been moving for the last couple of months, the industry has been preparing probably since the very beginning of the pandemic. It was an evidentuality that we knew that there would be a vaccine or a series of vaccines produced. So the first few months has really been a proving ground and a testing ground for some of the assumptions.

We have to say at the outset that still only about two and a half percent of the world's population has been inoculated or vaccinated thus far, so the volumes transported have been relatively small. But it did allow the industry to start looking at what would the challenges be, and they have really been consistent with what we anticipated in advance, which is looking at the variety of handling and transportation conditions for each of the different vaccine types. As we've seen in the first three, going from minus 75, 80 degrees Celsius to minus 20 degrees Celsius to ambient plus 5 to plus 8, for example, each of those different vaccine types requires a different series of procedures and conditions very much aligned with what the manufacturer is stipulating.

Also what came out with the first Pfizer vaccine was the focus on dry ice, which the industry had expected and had done some initial assessments considering the availability of dry ice. Industry was looking with the equipment manufacturers about the potential volumes that they could transport of dry ice, because of course, you've got the sublimation rate of which the dry ice will actually then, as it were, leak into the environment and the atmosphere. So there has to be some very strict safety control mechanisms and safety protocols that the carriers have put in place as part of their safety risk management. So they're able to look at the packaging and the types of dry ice requirements for the Pfizer vaccine in particular, and able to actually assess how that's actually moved.

So the first few months have been, as I say, a limited start, but it's been a good opportunity to test the internal procedures. It's also highlighted the absolute critical aspect of collaboration and communication. And that is not just within the supply chain. It starts with the countries identifying their availability and readiness to actually implement and distribute the vaccines within a country. You don't want to have wastage, and wastage is more than likely going to be when you've got a larger quantity of vaccine than you can actually disperse within the country, and that's something that everybody wants to avoid. As well as the production, it's critical that the pharma manufacturers and the vaccine manufacturers are open and transparent, as they have been, with the supply chain and, as it were, the countries that have ordered from them and the various health authorities, et cetera, so that any production slow-downs or accelerations can be met with adequate capacity to move the vaccine around the planet.

Helen Massy-Beresford:

Okay. This is not the only challenge that the air cargo industry is facing at the moment, of course. There's the fact that many passenger flights are still grounded, which has led to a big capacity squeeze. How do you think operators are coping with that in the context of this huge COVID vaccination effort that is still ramping up?

Glyn Hughes:

Again, another great question, and it was something that, again, the industry had actually really had to start responding to in the middle of the pandemic during the course of, let's say, March, April, May of last year, when the demand for PPE really highlighted the shortfall in capacity, because of course, 60-70% of the international passenger aircraft were grounded. So the industry then responded with some great innovative solutions by actually implementing passenger aircraft for cargo-only operations. And at the height of the pandemic, there were about two and a half thousand passenger aircraft being used for cargo-only operations. Of those, about 250 had actually had the seats fully removed so that it actually enhanced the available capacity within cabin, but of course you can't move dangerous goods or any other items within there. So it's very much that that was fine for PPE.

So we have seen, and we do expect a continuance of this particular strategy employed by many carriers, particularly as the situation on the passenger side is still so unknown. You look at certain forecasts that say that the passenger numbers won't be back up to the pre-COVID level for about another three or four years, which would entail then that the capacity would also remain grounded, particularly long-haul, wide-bodied capacity. So we will expect to see, and we can expect to see, a continued high utilization of freighters and main deck capacity. They've been operating at about 14 to 16 hour  utilization in many cases, which is great optimization. And we could also expect to see continued operation of passenger-only cargo flights.

However, there is a risk to those operations due to the increasing price of oil. Those flights are not the same as flying a freighter. You don't have the full capacity that a freighter has, and you do have a greater weight. So it is important to keep monitoring the price of fuel, and the carriers are actually looking at how they can balance the need for global networks versus an economic operation to put into place. So it's going to be a balancing act. I think also another aspect of this is the timeliness. Much of the ramp-up for vaccine movements will probably happen in about Q2, Q3, which traditionally is a quieter period for air cargo. So we shouldn't necessarily see the same potential challenge as we would do if the vaccine distribution is still at the height if we get to Q3/Q4 of this year. Then we might see some significant further challenges.

Helen Massy-Beresford:

Okay. What lessons do you think that the air cargo industry is going to draw from this whole COVID situation and the vaccine effort, and do you think that in particular it might speed up efforts to digitalize more quickly?

Glyn Hughes:

I think that's another very good question. I think the digitalization efforts, transparency, open and collaborative communications are something which has very much been at the height of focusing on the preparedness for moving the COVID vaccine. And one hopes that those lessons will continue once the COVID scenario has resolved itself, because this industry very much needs to collaborate, particularly going forward, when you look at the increase in the amount of special cargo that's being moved around the world. Whether or not that's live animals, fresh fruits and vegetables, or any of the life sciences, pharmaceuticals, et cetera, it is really key there for collaboration. So I think that's one lesson that we can hopefully continue through.

And certainly, yes, it should accelerate the digitalization aspect, because all those special cargoes require pre-planning and preparedness. So if you actually rely on the old analog system of moving the cargo with a piece of paper telling you how that cargo needs to be handled, it's too late. We need to continue doing what we're doing now, which is sharing that information in advance, and in fact, sharing it even earlier. As we go forward, I think we will use digital platforms and data to a far greater degree of preemptive actions when you can see that cargo is perhaps coming in that needs to be prepared for. Or, even more dynamically, when the cargo is actually moving and we can have a tracker or data loggers that can actually monitor the conditions of that cargo, and the industry can then respond if those conditions are falling outside of the optimum level.

Helen Massy-Beresford:

So you've started your role at TIACA very recently. What are your priorities for the next few months?

Glyn Hughes:

Very good question. I'm five weeks into the job and it's tremendous. And I really enjoyed my time at IATA and I'm really enjoying my time at TIACA now. We've got a very engaged board, a very engaged membership. They've set some very strong objectives for the industry this year and for the organization, focusing on certainly helping the industry through the current COVID and the vaccine situation. We've been working very closely with Pharma.Aero, which is an organization specializing in pharmaceuticals and life sciences and vaccine movements. So we put together a couple of documents and we've held some informational webinars.

We'll also be looking very closely at the sustainability agenda. This industry needs to focus much more on inclusivity and diversity in the workforce, needing to reflect and mirror the society that this industry is actually serving, so we'll be focusing very much on sustainable items. As well, of course, the environment side. Environmental responsibility and stewardship is very important. Industry training and education is another critical area that we need to be looking at. And of course, another one which you've already touched upon, which is the need for enhanced digitalization. And coupled with the fact that TIACA has got a very strong history of bringing the industry together for networking and collaborative discussions and debates, we hope to accelerate that going forward so that we can actually ensure that the discussions that the industry needs to have can actually be held and we can facilitate those. So it's a very exciting time coming up.

Helen Massy-Beresford:

Sounds busy. Okay. Well, thank you very much for joining us. That's all for now. Thank you. Bye-bye.


Helen Massy-Beresford

Based in Paris, Helen Massy-Beresford covers European and Middle Eastern airlines, the European Commission’s air transport policy and the air cargo industry for Aviation Week & Space Technology and Aviation Daily.