News: Digitisation and innovation: the road to improved cargo handling at Schiphol

The Smart Cargo Mainport Program (SCMP) is an innovative initiative aimed at improving land-side air cargo handling at Schiphol. An important component of the program is the Road Feeder Service (RFS) project focusing on “road replacing air” transport to and from Schiphol. The RFS project is collecting all relevant data on these road transports and integrating it into a digital system for sharing between the relevant chain partners. This brings opportunities as well as challenges for the parties.

Published on: 4 April 2024

“As a leading European air cargo hub, Cargo City Schiphol is of inestimable value for the Netherlands economy. But, in order to retain our position as an attractive airport for air cargo, it is crucial that all logistical processing be of the very highest quality”, says Luc Scheidel, Program Manager, Smart Cargo Mainport Program at Schiphol. “SCMP is a collaboration between Schiphol, KLM Cargo, Cargonaut and Air Cargo Netherlands (ACN) with its numerous associates. This innovative program aims to coordinate the efforts of the various chain partners in the cargo sector - the ground handlers, airlines and hauliers - and support their efforts with a digital system. The goal? Improving land-side cargo deliveries at and around Schiphol. By expediting throughput and thus stimulating our competitive capacity, we will be able to remain the innovative and sustainable cargo hub we are now.”

Currently five air cargo ground handlers are operating at Schiphol, each with their own protocols and working practices. Maarten van As, Managing Director of industry association ACN, explains: “In order for cargo handling to proceed as efficiently as possible, a handling agent has to be aware of the traffic arriving land-side. With timely digital availability of correct information to the correct party, we are striving for predictable and plannable processes. Ultimately, we are working towards a future with digital truck slot planning with transporters arriving by appointment.”

Road Feeder Services: ‘flights on wheels’

In order to be able to take the next step towards digitisation, a thorough overview of all air cargo movements at Schiphol was essential. While local import and export flows were quite transparent, information on the Road Feeder Services stream was less complete, Erwin de Jager, Business Project Manager of the RFS project, explains: “Whilst this forms a substantial part of all transport movements at Schiphol.”

For a year and a half, De Jager has been working intensively with chain partners to increase transparency in the RFS transport flow. “RFS offers an alternate transport solution for air cargo. It is road transport replacing flights between airports, also termed a “flight on wheels”. At the request of an airline, goods are transported by truck from various European destinations to Schiphol and vice versa. By using their RFS partners (major transport companies with numerous trucks commuting between airports), airlines can offer their customers a better service even at locations where they do not have direct air services.” IATA has concluded worldwide agreements allowing these road transports to be classified as flights, with flight numbers and all required customs formalities.

The aim is to gather together all relevant data including transport schedules, flight number usage and collaboration between partners, and centralise this information in a secure digital location. “Subsequently this information can be shared via an online tool with all involved parties,” De Jager explains. According to him, the challenge lies in the integration of different systems and working practices. “We have therefore developed a dashboard for progress on data coverage. We are also putting into place a trust framework regarding confidentiality and application management as well as setting out the relationships between RFS partners. In this way we can ensure that access is only gained to data for which parties are responsible. It is high time this RFS tool be developed in order that parties can effectively exchange information. The implementation of this tool, as part of the Smart Cargo Mainport Program, is planned for the autumn. Initially it will be available only to partners of ground handler dnata but later it will gradually be made available to other chain partners.

Challenges and opportunities

A prominent player in the logistics sector is Jan de Rijk Logistics. The company, located in Roosendaal, operates a fleet of more than a thousand vehicles and has branches at important airports such as Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, London and Paris. “Approximately a third of our total revenue comes from air cargo”, David Smorenburg, Sales Manager Air Cargo, advises. “We handle consignments between more than a hundred European airports ranging from flowers and medicines that require specific temperatures to secured goods such as iPhones.” He emphasises the need for more transparency, efficiency and speed in the cargo handling process. “This is why I am so very enthousiastic about the RFS project. Too often we have to contend with long queues on and around Schiphol, most especially in the run up to the weekend. This leads to waiting times of up to six or seven hours. Currently this is one of our largest cost items. By linking details from the airlines and truck drivers with those of the ground handling agents, the ground handlers have a clearer idea of what is coming their way, whereby they can more efficiently deploy their people and resources which results in all involved parties having a greater chance of being helped. For the drivers it will also mean less time-consuming paperwork.”

The transport company itself uses advanced IT applications. “We know exactly where our vehicles are and when they will arrive somewhere. The availability of compatible data is not the problem; the problem is getting everything into one system. For some chain partners this will demand significant changes to their own systems. But results are promising: cooperating within one digital network leads not only to better service for our customers but also to a more attractive airport and region. Ultimately, benefits will accrue for everyone including employees in the sector.”

A new shared script

Etihad Airways has been active at Schiphol for more than 10 years with daily passenger flights and six cargo flights each week. Jan Verboon, Area Manager Cargo Operations and Delivery, understands better than anyone the importance of Road Feeder Services for their business operations. “Alongside our headquarters in Abu Dhabi, Schiphol is one of our most important airports in the world. Like Schiphol we place great value on technological innovation; in that sense, this is a perfect match.”

Verboon emphasises the urgent need for predictability within air cargo handling. “The most significant factor of the RFS project is that it helps prevent disruption in the loading and unloading process. A condition, however, is that all involved air cargo operators and airline head offices must join in. This raises the question: will everyone be able to keep up?” He is optimistic with regard to changes in individual work processes. “Communication between airlines and trucks follows universal standards, so we already have those details. The challenge lies in the supply of the details required for the project as that demands both effort and time. Currently we are at 91%. All-in-all, we are writing a whole new script for the Schiphol community. That is pretty unique.”

Pre-positioning for the future

De Jager anticipates Road Feeder Services becoming increasingly pertinent due to the volume of air cargo at Schiphol continuing to increase regardless of the number of (permitted) flight movements. “In future the difference we make will be via the road so a well-functioning physical and digital infrastructure will be essential in order to avoid congestion. So, in light of this, this innovative digitisation is a smart move in (pre-)positioning for the future.”

SCMP is supported by the Digital Infrastructure for Logistics initiative of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and by Amsterdam Logistics.