Exploring the Future of Air Cargo with Glyn Hughes, Director General of TIACA

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Many consumers have grown used to placing orders for goods and products online and having them arrive at their door at no additional cost and in practically no time. In fact, it would be fair to say that we take inexpensive, rapid delivery of goods and products for granted in 2024.

However, underpinning the simple process of pointing, clicking, checking out, and waiting for a knock on the door is a massive air cargo industry. This industry moves a significant amount of the world’s cargo, and even functions to transport incredibly important products rapidly and safely – including life-saving pharmaceuticals and vaccines.

However, the air cargo industry faces increased pressure to evolve and change. Calls to increase sustainability, shifts in customer requirements, and demands for increased transparency are driving the industry to adapt and embrace new technologies.

To learn more about the changes happening in the industry and the ways in which technology is revolutionizing operations for air cargo companies, we sat down with Glyn Hughes, the Director General of The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA).

Connected Aviation Today (CAT): The air cargo industry is seeing increasing pressure to up its environmental performance. How is the industry helping companies achieve more sustainable operations? 

Glyn Hughes: TIACA runs an annual sustainability survey that gauges where the industry is collectively regarding sustainable actions and strategies.  One of the questions identifies key drivers behind an organization’s approach to improving its sustainable credentials. 

The 2023 survey indicated that sustainability pressure is coming from air cargo industry customers, business partners, employees, regulators, and other groups.  It is a topic of growing importance. 

The key is how the air cargo industry responds collectively. There are many initiatives, investments, and programs which will improve the industry’s impact on people, the planet, and enhance global prosperity.

It is encouraging to note that the aviation industry has adopted a 2050 net zero target.  To achieve this, many in the air cargo industry are embarking on fleet renewals, enhanced technology, and commitments to increase the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).  However, SAF is currently limited in supply and higher in price than jet kerosene (Jet A-1), so it is important that governments provide support in the form of investment in research and production.

In many parts of the world, airports are utilizing their real estate for solar farms and other forms of green energy.  We are even seeing some great programs looking at different types of infield grass, determining which provides the highest degree of carbon absorption.  Fleets of green energy ground support vehicles are replacing old diesel vehicles, and investments in green hydrogen will increase in the near and medium term.

“Air cargo is a premium mode of transport, moving 35 percent of global trade by value. The most precious of this cargo is live animals and sensitive healthcare products, such as vaccines and lifesaving pharmaceuticals.” – Glyn Hughes

Forwarders and integrators are looking at their delivery fleets and we are seeing significant investments in electrification of ground vehicles. Air cargo industry suppliers are also engaging in development programs intended to deliver positive results for the planet.  Air cargo is a considerable consumer of single-use plastic, which historically has found its way into landfills.  Now, thanks to innovative research and development, there are alternatives that are either water-soluble or biodegradable.

These are just a small number of examples, but the key position is that the air cargo industry recognizes the collective responsibility we have and is seeking to reduce the impact we have on the environment.

CAT: How important is it to digitally map the entire door-to-door process, and what are the benefits of having a real-time connected, coordinated, and transparent supply chain?

Glyn Hughes: For many decades, the air cargo industry’s primary role was to transport boxes of general cargo from point A to point B in a timely manner. The industry relied on paper-based information, which predominantly moved with the cargo. However, things have changed significantly since those days.

Now, there is an increased emphasis on time, temperature, condition, and if the cargo is valuable or sensitive in nature. As a result, the successful transport of this cargo requires that information flow before the cargo movement. This facilitates preparation and awareness and provides the visibility necessary for compliance, border controls, and exception management should a disruption occur during any transport phase.

Digital solutions leaped forward during COVID, when the physical transfer of paper documents was impossible. Improving quality transport with digital connectivity requires that the entire process flow is identified and managed. Hand-over points between partners need to create time stamps, and custodial transfers of data and goods need to allow upstream partners and end-customers to receive timely insights as to cargo whereabouts and condition. 

CAT: We saw how important air cargo was to vaccine distribution during COVID. What has changed in pharma logistics? What are some of the new ways to ensure movement of time and temperature sensitive cargo? 

Glyn Hughes: Air cargo is a premium mode of transport, moving 35 percent of global trade by value. The most precious of this cargo is live animals and sensitive healthcare products, such as vaccines and lifesaving pharmaceuticals.

“…the air cargo industry recognizes the collective responsibility we have and is seeking to reduce the impact we have on the environment.” – Glyn Hughes

To transport these commodities in the most optimal conditions, the industry has worked collectively and collaboratively to develop procedures closely aligned with and enhanced by government regulations.  Organizations like Pharma.Aero, which brings together pharmaceutical manufacturers and industry partners to design joint solutions to enhance patient safety, are an example of the industry’s commitment to excellence.

Data sensors have also increased in use, enabling physical conditions to be monitored and adjusted during the transport cycle. Considering the ever-increasing volume of life-saving pharmaceuticals being moved, this translates directly to increases in patient safety.

CAT: How has the rise in demand for e-commerce shaped the growth of air cargo?  

Glyn Hughes: Air cargo is the premier mode of transport for moving goods internationally. As consumer expectations evolve, there is equal pressure on air cargo to evolve. E-commerce is also competing against traditional in-store retail sales, where the consumers’ emotional gratification is instant – they leave the store and take ownership within minutes of the purchase activity. 

E-commerce sales over recent years have shown significant double-digit increases. This growth accelerated through the COVID period and shows no signs of slowing. And this impacts the air cargo industry in a number of ways.

There has been a marked increase in consolidated cargo supplying regional or national e-commerce distribution centers. There has been an increase in direct, express shipments from businesses to consumers. There are also new entrants providing capacity and uplift, with major e-commerce platform to e-commerce platform operators procuring and managing their own air cargo flights. 

“…there is an increased emphasis on time, temperature, condition, and if the cargo is valuable or sensitive in nature. As a result, the successful transport of this cargo requires that information flow before the cargo movement.” – Glyn Hughes

As e-commerce platforms develop greater understandings of their customers’ needs, we may eventually see some of this directly controlled capacity being offered for commercial sale. Everything is possible; the industry is evolving rapidly to suit the changing consumer behavior.

CAT: The air cargo industry has been accelerating towards a digital ecosystem to enable collaboration, gain insights, and improve customer service. What can we expect to see in the near future? 

Glyn Hughes: This is a fascinating question as it goes to the heart of what will make every industry different from today. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), robotics, advanced automation, and other interactive tools that utilize data will increase in importance as the needs and expectations of shippers, consumers, and supply chains become more sophisticated. 

Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications based on pre-planned transport route maps will help ensure exceptions and disruptions can be handled as they occur.  Communicating with all interested stakeholders will be simultaneous. Compliance will be enhanced with increased intelligence, ensuring risk management can be more effectively targeted.

Proactive interactive tracking with information-based dashboards will replace the traditional phone inquiry to locate cargo.  Cargo facilities will probably go vertical with storage and retrieval managed via robotic automation. Distribution channels will increase as access to capacity will become easier through interconnected tools.  This will enhance competition and global connectivity.

But underpinning these new horizons will be an increased focus on cyber protection, trusted networks, and enhanced data security.

The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not represent the views, opinions, or endorsement of Collins Aerospace, its affiliates, or employees.


About Glyn Hughes, Director General, TIACA

Mr. Glyn Hughes has been involved in Air Cargo for over 40 years having started his career with British Caledonian in the UK.  He joined IATA in 1991 and became IATA’s Global Head of Cargo in June 2014. 

In February 2021, Glyn joined TIACA as its first Director General, where he works with the Board to deliver the organization’s vision for a safe, profitable, and united air cargo industry that embraces modern technologies and practices to sustainably serve trade and social development worldwide.  Priority areas include safety, security, sustainability, digitalization, and innovation. He is dedicated to developing collaborative relationships and firmly believes in supporting the next generation of industry leaders and innovators. 

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