We aim to have trade corridors, linking us to promote trade and business

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A city within a city, the success of the giant Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) keeps tens of thousands employed across Georgia, but as the airline industry takes brutal hits amid travel bans from Europe to the United States, its troubles are a huge blow for Atlanta. Elliott Paige, Director- Air Service Development at ATL in an in depth conversation with Ritika Arora Bhola, explains more on the ground situation at the world’s busiest airport and the near-term outlook which he thinks will be feasible to be in a good position and have most of the business back, and what’s down the line in order to stay on top of trends and developments.

Elaborate on the cargo and supply chain operations at ATL.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) has three main areas that service cargo. North Cargo serves several airlines such as Southwest, United, and Alaska, as well as the integrators- FedEx, DHL, and UPS. The mid-field area services Delta Airlines and all its SkyTeam partners. Finally, South Cargo is where the airport sees most of the action in terms of big all-freighter business. Airlines serviced in South Cargo include ABX, Cathay Pacific, China Cargo Air, Asiana, Cargolux, Amazon Air, and many others taking the number to 23 carriers in addition to charters. The three ground handlers are Swissport, Alliance Ground International, and Lufthansa Cargo AG.

Which categories of cargo have been mostly moved to and from ATL since COVID-19 has hit the industry?

We have seen a rise in shipments of PPEs used by the healthcare sector to fight COVID-19. There have been many charters, sometimes as much as 60 flights on our peak day of the week– Thursdays.  Among the select flights have been charters of the Antonov 124 filled with masks, along with passenger planes from as far as Taipei filled with PPEs strapped to the seats and in the carry-on overhead compartments.

Tell us about the superior infrastructure and technologies installed at the airport for supporting efficient supply chain operations– cargo handling and movement.

ATL airport has been working for five years to improve operations through new procedures, nurturing relationships with cargo stakeholders and implementing new technologies to bolster speed and efficiency.

In 2017, we implemented TruckPass, a truck marshaling yard, supported by software and dock sensors that allocate doors at the warehouse for delivery and pick-up through trucks. This has reduced truck congestion around the warehouse facilities, and instead helped in significantly increasing throughput. In November 2019, we launched the first Airport Cargo Community System in the US. This AI-powered system allows perfect track and trace, billing delivery, and other features of cargo at the airway bill level for all stakeholders– freight forwarders, airlines, ground handlers, and truckers.

We are adding new participants who want to increase their efficiency, save costs, and protect staff from COVID-19 infections by shaping the digital transformation of their operations.

Now that operations have resumed, what efficient plans and strategies have you deployed to ensure smooth cargo operations?

The airport, in collaboration with the private sector, has implemented plan of action for all staff to be protected and for clients such as truck drivers, to practice safety procedures. The staff within the cargo facilities have been provided with masks, gloves, and training on how to use them safely. Touch points are cleaned between shifts, while times between shifts are delayed ensuring there is minimal interaction between departing and arriving shifts of staff.

Some companies are using electro-static cleaning tools, while others have dedicated staff solely for compliance with COVID-19 protection procedures. The aim is to continue operations as safely as possible, given the absolute necessity that air cargo stays in services as it’s an essential sector for the fight against coronavirus.

Post-lockdown, how long would you estimate it would take for our industry to get back to business as usual? What will be the growth drivers?

The cargo industry has seen a tremendous shortage of capacity that has led to increased cargo rates.  Indicators from freight forwarders are that the prices are beginning to go back to normal due to a combination of more passenger flights taking to the air on the wake of lifting up of lockdowns and dampened aggregate demand.

At ATL, it took us 10-years from the 2008 financial crisis to return to pre-crisis levels when cargo handling reached to around 650,000 MT. In those instances, the initial shock lasted less than a year with after effects lasting several years.

The indicators this time are that much depends on how countries that are linked through trade, in both goods and services like tourism will have to boost consumer confidence by managing the coronavirus contagion.  Countries that have done the right things and come closest to eradicating the virus, with 100 per cent testing of the population, are moving back to dynamic economies. Those that have not managed the pandemic well enough will likely suffer consumer confidence.

The challenge is every country is dealing with this differently. Therefore, we may not see pre-COVID numbers until 2023 for cargo. The driver will be the speed of carrying out total eradication of the virus in as many countries possible, including measures to prevent its resurgence.

Where do the trade activities with India stand at this moment? What are the significant items transported to and from India?

India and the United States have a variety of trade disputes and negotiations ongoing in every area from goods trade and investment regime to services trade especially movement of natural persons.  Despite these disputes, the US has been exports machines (gas turbines, computers), minerals, precious metals, chemical products, plastics, paper, and textiles to India. Similarly, India exports the same type of products.

Currently at ATL, most of the goods to and from India are related to the pharmaceutical sector including medical equipment and supplies.

How do you look at India as an investment destination? Any plans for future trade with India?

I have coordinated three trade missions to India, visiting both public and private sectors in Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mumbai during 2016-2018. The delegation included the State of Georgia representatives, the Mayor of Atlanta representative, the Tourism Authority of Atlanta (Conventions and Visitors Bureau), and us as the airport. The main aim was to promote trade, investment, and an air service route between Atlanta and India.

We were very disappointed when Delta Airlines through a new service in December 2019 decided to connect Mumbai with New York instead of Atlanta. We thought Atlanta was an obvious choice.  Nonetheless, we wait to see what will happen as markets change in the recovery after COVID-19 pandemic.

Any new developments impending?

ATL airport recently awarded a new warehouse of 100,000 square feet (9,291m2) to Worldwide Flight Services. The expectation is that it should be operational by the end of 2020.

We are also soon to launch a project titled ‘Modern Air Cargo Terminal,’ a state-of-the-art cargo warehouse complex with advanced refrigeration and e-commerce capability, material handling and cargo community systems as well as green technology. This is a public-private project where the airport provides the land, and the private sector will build, finance, and launch an on-airport cargo warehouse. The request for proposal should be issued by the last quarter of 2020, with the expectation to have proposals to review and approve in 12 months.

We want ATL to be one of the premiere leaders in moving high-value air cargo, connecting the metro  city Atlanta to major trading partners like Mumbai, Amsterdam, Seoul, Shanghai, Riyadh, Paris, and Mexico City.  We aim to have trade corridors, linking us to promote trade and business with each of our airport partners.

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