© Mr.siwabud Veerapaisarn

Emirates SkyCargo and DP World have developed a sea-air product together – something forwarders said they “should have done years ago”.

The Dubai-based companies are offering Sea-Air, an express product with a pledge to transfer containers from port to airport in less than 3 hours; Sea-Air Plus, a bespoke solution whereby customers can pick DP World or their own representatives to arrange breakdowns and paperwork; and Sea-Air Flex, which offers shippers and forwarders a range of options, including door-to-door services, and an all-inclusive per kilo rate.

Forwarders welcomed the innovative move.

“It’s a good one,” said one. “I’ve never seen an airline do something like this, but it makes sense with its affiliation with Dubai World, and the proximity of the port and DWC airport.”

Nick Coverdale of Aeromar, a sea-air specialist, said: “They should have done this years ago. I have proposed it to several airlines and carriers – but being truly disruptive was just beyond their comfort zone.”

However, he was less keen on the products offered.

“The first two options seem to be directed at people that don’t know their job and shouldn’t be involved in sea-air in the first place. The Flex product seems to cut out sea-air operators and forwarders, attacking their clients directly. It’s actually a pretty big story when a port operator and an airline intend to bypass forwarders on a complex mode of transport.

“Sea-air may look easy, but it’s not. That’s why you don’t see start-ups in this space.”

He said sea-air via Dubai was not viable while ocean freight rates were “unsustainable”.

However, Metro Shipping said it had moved large volumes of garments into the UK and Europe using sea-air via Singapore and Dubai in the past 12 months, as clients veered between slowing freight down and speeding up supplies, depending on lockdowns.

“Sea-air is a ‘halfway house’ between cost reduction against pure air freight and speed of transit,” explained business development director Grant Liddell. “We average 12 days through Singapore from initial vessel departure, and 20 days through our Dubai hub from Asia.

“With the very high air freight rates experienced since April, the costs can be up to 70% lower than pure air freight, while transit times are only double that of airfreight at certain times, due to the infrequent schedule and high demand of flights.”

Metro used sea-air over a three-month period last year for PPE from South-east Asian factories via Singapore.

“Costs were significantly reduced and we did not need to charter expensive flights from the origin countries, as we took the freight to where the scheduled airlines were operating. From some origins we could achieve a better transit by truck-air than we could through pure air freight options, which was saturated with governments scrambling to get PPE.”

Metro is expecting an economic rebound following the easing of lockdown restrictions, and Mr Liddell said sea-air would be a benefit.

“We have prepared for greater throughput of sea-air and truck-air volumes as importers from Asia see unprecedented demand and replenish stock or new season items.”

He added that continued disruption in ocean freight and oversubscribed rail services from Asia to Europe, meant sea-air was “the perfect solution” for importers with cost-versus-transit concerns. For the UK, it meant transport direct by air, rather than via currently challenging EU trucking services.

“With the exorbitant air freight levels from Asia, the intermodal service has become commercially even more viable and appealing to shippers that need to recover speed to market to meet demand.

“Although sea-air has traditionally been seen as a repair option, we now are seeing customers scheduling movements through this platform on an ongoing basis. It is a very useful and pragmatic option to have in the logistics and supply chain armoury.”

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