Staying United in Challenging Times

United Airlines doesn’t just transport millions of passengers to hundreds of destinations across the world. It also manages extensive belly cargo on the vast majority of its flights. So, when the coronavirus struck, Jacques Leijssenaar, Vice President of Cargo EMEIA (Europe, Middle East, India and Africa) at United, had a dilemma: how to keep cargo flowing and customers confident in the most uncertain of times for the industry.

All hands on deck

Jacques recalls the shock that went through United’s Cargo division when the impact of the virus on the industry began to take shape. ‘As passenger flights started getting cancelled, we had a feeling it would just be a matter of time before more and more of the industry would be affected,’ he says. So United assembled a Task Force of cargo specialists, network planning, flight operations, communications and other internal stakeholders. The task? Develop a network to determine cargo solutions and keep the supply chain moving.

‘As passenger movements were slowing down, cargo movements were still taking place. Reduced capacity created new dynamics and there was a shift in commodities,’ Jacques explains. ‘The increase in shipments of medical supplies and an explosion of online shopping maintained the demand for cargo flights in and out of EMEIA,’ he says.

Finding the answers

Within a few days, the Task Force had found answers to the most pressing questions: where and when cargo could fly, which ground crews were available to process shipments, what governmental regulations were in place, and which airports could offer support. ‘Our relationship with Schiphol was outstanding during that time,’ Jacques continues. ‘They offered the flexibility and support we needed to keep our commitments to customers.’

And that meant shipping cargo on passenger aircraft: either with full bellies and empty cabins or sometimes even with cargo in the cabin itself, in overhead bins and closets. ‘It costs money to even park a passenger aircraft,’ Jacques says. ‘So, it was better for us to utilise the aircraft available and fly to the airports that were still processing cargo – like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London and Brussels.’

At the beginning of the program, many cargo flights were chartered by one or two customers. United gradually created a cargo-only network, accessible by all customers. ‘We owe a great deal of appreciation to not just our own cargo team, but groups at United like network planning, flight operations, airport operations and several others for coming together to keep cargo successful during this time,’ Jacques says. Since the program began in March, United has operated over 5,600 cargo-only flights carrying over 86 million kilos of critical goods around the world.

Calm amidst the storm

Despite the hectic pace and the challenging circumstances, Jacques says he is proud of his team’s work during the peak of the crisis. ‘Cargo is all about the chain. If one part of the chain struggles, the whole chain struggles. And the collaboration and communication the chain accomplished during the crisis was remarkable. Everyone worked together and contributed to the process, to ensure that the cargo continued to get where it needed to go.’

And that includes crucial PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and medical equipment. ‘There was an extra level of motivation and pride in knowing that we were delivering essential supplies to healthcare workers,’ Jacques says. ‘Simply by keeping our word and serving our customers, we were able to contribute to the fight against coronavirus and deliver critical goods to the people who needed them most.’

New beginnings

Now that passengers are gradually beginning to travel again, Jacques and his team are working hard to keep belly cargo and passengers balanced, to ensure that costs and expectations continue to be well managed. ‘Eventually we expect the industry to recover, and during this transition period, we’re using the lessons we’ve learned to work as efficiently and effectively as possible for all our customers. Because no matter what else is happening, we know we need a strong cargo network.’

And through it all, collaboration continues to be key. ‘United is just one link in the chain,’ Jacques reminds us. ‘Staying connected to the handlers, forwarders, shippers, truckers, airports and other key stakeholders that rely on our service keeps us all strong. The closer we stay to each other, the stronger our chain will be.’