Sustaining the Chain with Genuine Cooperation

In “normal” times, Bart Pouwels safeguards and advances Schiphol’s cargo strategy and ensures that Schiphol continues its work to become the Smartest Cargo Hub in Europe. But these are anything but “normal” times. So, while efficiency and innovation are still high on the agenda, Bart is focusing on the ways that every member of the cargo chain can contribute to our collective success. And how to maximise on the positive developments that have occurred in these challenging times. Because if there’s one thing he’s learned in the past few months, it’s that anything is possible when we all work together.

Unprecedented accessibility

The reduced number of passenger flights during the coronavirus peak created more demand for full-freighter flights and even cargo-only passenger flights to help accommodate cargo needs in the Netherlands. Even when staff numbers were reduced by 10-15%, we were able to accommodate all the extra freighter flights that wanted to land at Schiphol. It was collaboration ultima forma – all hands on deck to help each other during the crisis.’

Bart also credits the Air Cargo Netherlands branch organisation (ACN) and Dutch customs with for their flexibility and accommodation. ‘We stayed in constant contact, communicated every week with our partners, and found exceptional ways to keep cargo moving,’ he says. ‘Customs and Civil Aviation Authorities also helped us prioritise shipments of critical PPE and medical supplies, so we could swiftly get those materials to the healthcare workers that needed them most.’

ACN also provided new 1.5-metre distancing protocols, which partners swiftly implemented. And extra sanitation facilities were installed to help keep drivers and workers safe.

Collaboration for acceleration

‘The coronavirus impacted the entire industry,’ Bart begins. ‘So we had to rethink everything, from the way we work to the way we communicate. Before, if there was an issue in the chain, we’d sit around the table and discuss solutions. But the coronavirus forced us to find new ways to connect. Including weekly video calls with our handlers and partners. We found that we could remain connected, even if we couldn’t be together physically.’

There were moments when Schiphol’s ambitions for a smarter cargo system intersected with the new needs related to coronavirus – with positive effect. ‘Before the crisis hit us, we were working on an electronic system for managing the paperwork on incoming and outgoing cargo,’ Bart says. ‘But suddenly, we needed to develop the system to also reduce contact moments in order to prevent further spreading of the virus. Our e-link digital system was nearly ready to be implemented, but the process got accelerated because of COVID-19. All partners quickly got on board to protect the physical safety of their employees, so we will be able to start e-link pilot faster than we expected. We managed to create a win from this challenging situation.’

The road ahead

Bart says that Schiphol is fully committed to keeping the lines of communication open. Because – despite fewer workers on the floor – operational performance at Schiphol was higher during the crisis than it was before. ‘If there’s one thing this crisis has taught us, it’s that we can overcome anything if we work together. Moving forward, we will continue to support every member of the chain and help them find innovative solutions to their biggest concerns.’

Bart says that the cargo community is strong, and that a win for one member of the chain is a win for us all. ‘During the crisis, we let go of our competitive nature, and showed what we can do when we work together and share resources. We plan to take that forward during the industry’s recovery and beyond.’

Together for the future

And although innovation has not been on top of everyone’s list lately, that doesn’t mean that it’s less important. Focusing on the goals of the Smart Cargo Mainport Program (SCMP) to make the entire chain more efficient, effective and ready for growth remains an important strategic pillar. According to Bart, there are three key things the cargo industry needs to succeed. ‘We’ve already shown that we can collaborate effectively. And that will be essential as we look towards the future and innovate our industry. Next, we need clean, reliable data, and many cargo partners are busy making that happen. Then, we need an accessible, low-threshold system that allows a variety of cargo partners to work together.’

Bart understands that many cargo partners likely don’t feel like they have the time to think about innovation right now. Too much energy is being focused on merely surviving. But he reminds the chain that those two things can be done together. ‘I am extremely proud of how the entire chain – handlers, forwarders, airlines, hauliers, regulators and authorities worked together these past few months. There is no reason to believe we can’t keep that momentum going as we reshape the chain together.’