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Keeping cool


SATS has continued to invest in equipment, manpower and new cargo handling solutions to serve its customers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, writes senior vice president for cargo services, Nazri Othman.

The air cargo industry has experienced sharp declines in cargo volumes with COVID-19 disrupting supply chains around the world since its onset last year.

As the crisis unfolded, supply chain disruptions contributed to shortages in essential supplies such as food and medical products in several countries.

Like its peers in the industry, SATS worked around the clock to keep supply chains open and connected throughout its cargo terminal operations (CTO) network, which spans 10 countries.

By preventing major disruptions to cargo movement, we helped to ensure that customers and communities would continue to have access to critical supplies, while protecting and supporting the industry.

We simultaneously worked closely with the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) to diversify its sourcing network to help strengthen Singapore’s food supply resilience and meet the daily needs of the public and essential workers at the time.

In April 2020, IATA reported that industry-wide cargo tonne kilometres (CTKs) plunged 27.7% year-on-year, alongside a 42% reduction in cargo capacity annually with the absence of the belly capacity of passenger aircraft.

SATS soon saw cargo tonnage and flights handled plunge to as low as 45% and 10% of pre-COVID volumes respectively in that same month. However, the company stayed resilient by further strengthening its hub capabilities and connectivity over the past year.

This included SATS’ largest redeployment of 10,000 staff into new and critical roles across the group’s operations, ramping up training and development, as well as accelerating the enhancement of cool chain capabilities and capacity.

As Asia’s first on-airport perishable handling centre in 2010 and the world’s first coolport to obtain IATA’s Centre of Excellence for Independent Validators on Pharmaceutical Handling (CEIV Pharma) certification in 2014, SATS Coolport in Singapore reaped the benefits of its early investment in pharmaceutical handling during the pandemic.

Designed to meet the highest international standards of cold chain integrity, the 8,000-square-metre coolport is equipped with electronic temperature-monitoring technology, 18 cold rooms with temperature zones ranging from -28ºC to 25ºC, and an annual handling capacity of up to 250,000 tonnes of temperature-sensitive goods.

However, we also invested an additional S$1 million in equipment such as cool dollies and temperature loggers to gear up for the specialised handling and transhipment of COVID-19 vaccines.

At the same time, the company recognised the importance of actively engaging industry stakeholders through a broader ecosystem approach as a member of The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA), Singapore Aircargo Agents Association (SAAA), and Singapore’s Changi Ready Taskforce by coming together to resolve the logistical challenges of transporting and handling life-saving vaccines to nearly eight billion people worldwide.

Hence, we readily supported Project Sunrays by Pharma.Aero and TIACA, which seeks to establish useful guidelines to ensure the proper and safe handling, storage, and transport of high volumes of COVID-19 vaccines globally.

Our presence in key airports in the region has helped to pave the way to establishing more secure temperature-controlled quality corridors between other countries and Singapore through close collaboration between airlines and the Changi air cargo community.

Other SATS joint venture coolports in Asia that are IATA or GDP-certified include Beijing Aviation Ground Services in Beijing, AISATS Coolport in Bengaluru, SATS Saudi Arabia in Dammam, Asia Airfreight Terminal in Hong Kong, JAS Airport Services in Jakarta, and Transom SATS Cargo in Muscat.

Building a network of pharma handling facilities with similar capabilities, coupled with the strong air connectivity of these key cities’ airports with Changi Airport, has contributed to boosting Singapore’s status as a key regional distribution hub.

However, even though the COVID-19 situation looks set to improve with the roll-out of new vaccines, there is still a long road ahead. We continue to work closely with our airline partners to adapt operational procedures and processes for the conversion of passenger flights to cargo-in-cabin (CIC) flights to maximise cargo load factors.

From trialling new ways of loading and securing cargo in aircraft cabins and overhead stowage compartments, to utilising hi-lifts that are typically deployed to uplift inflight meals and baggage skyloaders, the experienced team at SATS leaves no stone unturned.

Today, SATS’ cargo volumes have rebounded to more than 80% of pre-COVID levels in tandem with a significant increase in freighter and CIC flights.

Moreover, as e-commerce transactions spike amidst heightened travel restrictions and lockdowns, another of SATS’ early investments was validated.

Set up in 2017, the highly automated SATS eHub tripled Changi’s e-commerce mail-sorting capability, halved processing time, and can handle as many as 1,800 mail bags a day. This has enabled the company to manage and meet the growing volume of eCommerce shipments.

While the operating environment remains challenging due to ongoing pandemic-related travel restrictions, demand for air freight to transport e-commerce, pharmaceutical, and perishable products continue to rise.

We remain committed to protecting the safety of communities, travellers, and the movement of goods, even as it encourages greater collaboration and trust amongst the air cargo community to take the industry forward.

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