Air’s Premium

One of the more common, devalued words in the transportation, logistics and shipping world is “solutions.”

A decade or so ago, “solutions” was simply a proxy for software, or the technology that underpinned shipping activities. More recently, it’s taken in the broader supply chain and logistics world, where providers offer shippers a broad range of tailored services aimed at providing, well, solutions to shippers’ problems.

And that’s because there is always a solution to a seemingly intractable logistics or shipping problem, right?

What we saw in Europe recently, however, was a long week that pushed that truism to its limits. The airline industry was in something close to chaos, frozen in place by the cloud of volcanic dust that hovered high in the atmosphere. The usually foreboding gray skies of London were uncharacteristically bright and blue, maddeningly clear but carrying the specter of potential disaster invisibly high in the sky.

For thousands of travelers worldwide, solutions were hard to come by. Passenger airlines, particularly the U.S. carriers, showed the impact of years of cutbacks and tough price competition by offering precious little information beyond the initial notification that a particular flight had been canceled. British residents converged on the Madrid airport from distant points in hopes of finding motor coaches heading north, while Americans tried to get on packed trains heading south to airports that were open in southern Europe.

Yet the air transport business wasn’t entirely left at sea by the volcanic ash fallout.

The air freight business raced to put alternative routes in place to keep goods moving in and out of Europe. Business was far from seamless, but anyone traveling across the continent last week saw plenty of trucks operating for DHL, FedEx, UPS and TNT as those carriers and the freight airlines implemented emergency plans in rapid order.

“We managed OK within Europe,” TNT spokesman Cyrille Gidot said. “We have a very extensive road network in Europe and can reach most destinations in 48 hours. In this case, Liege (the Belgian airport that is the main TNT European hub) became a road hub for us.”

Forwarder Panalpina, working with freight airline Cargolux, shifted its trans-Atlantic charter operation to Zaragosa, Spain, and set up a convoy of trucks going in each direction to get trans-Atlantic goods into and out of the continent. FedEx and UPS pushed flights to sites such as Madrid and Istanbul and used trucks to get goods the rest of the way.

That doesn’t mean all the alternative plans operated smoothly. But the carriers in the field were aggressive in seeking out immediate solutions.

Clearly, passenger and cargo operators are in different businesses, but one major gap between them lately has been that the expedited shipping business, although highly competitive, has not faced the sort of drastic competition from low-cost operators that has driven down service standards. Instead, unyielding demands and the abilities of premium carriers to meet those demands have chased discount competitors from the market.

That helped put the air freight business and its customers in a better position last week to find solutions.

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at ppage@joc.com. Follow Paul Page on Twitter, www.twitter.com/paulpage.

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