Jaromír Chalabala handling cargo
Jaromír Chalabala

Forwarders will stop using airlines with poor cargo handling contracts and have blamed carriers for failing to invest sufficiently, adding to congestion problems and delayed import cargo.

While handlers continue to invest in infrastructure – this week Swissport has rented a 36,000 sq ft facility at Heathrow in a 10-year lease – poor airline contracts are failing their customers, especially in congested airports, claim forwarders.

“What’s causing problems for us is ground handling, especially at Heathrow,” said one air freight forwarder.

“The dwell times are long. It’s partly because the airport is busy, but the handlers get paid peanuts for what they are doing, and airlines are happy to jump ship to another handler.

“That means handlers are not able to resource stations as they should – and it’s getting worse,” he said.

As a result, forwarders said, handling has become a major factor in choosing an airline.

“We have started looking at airline handling as part of our choice of airline,” said one air forwarder. “Sometimes it’s better to go to one place, like Emirates at Heathrow, which saves time and money.”

He added that he was prepared to “spend a cent or two more per kilo” for airlines which had efficient handling.

The biggest challenge was on import cargo. One forwarder explained that airline service level agreements with handlers tended to focus on exports, meaning there was little pressure to deal with imports.

“Airlines just want the planes going out full, so all the resources are on exports. But if it’s not working now – what’s it going to be like in the peak?”

Different forwarders named different handlers as “the worst”, suggesting that the problem was across the board.

“The handlers need to make a return,” said one forwarder. “They used to be owned or subsidised by the airlines, but now they are not. So they’ve cut down on overheads.”

Heathrow’s much-hated ‘horseshoe’ was singled out for extra criticism.

“Heathrow is so horseshoe-orientated, but that infrastructure is too old, outdated and antiquated – but very difficult to renovate,” one forwarder conceded.

“Handling has been terrible for the past 10 years; the bar is set pretty low. We know in the peak it will take two days to get freight out of the transit shed. Handlers are measured on getting freight out of the country – so they take all staff off imports and put them on exports, otherwise the carriers go mad.

“You only ever see one door in use at warehouses, because they don’t have the staff.”

Last year’s peak season saw police turn traffic away at the UK’s main airport, while the horseshoe suffered closures. Forwarders are fearful of similar issues this year.

“Vehicles can be sat there for eight hours,” said one. “It will be an issue again this year.”

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