Beyond the discussion of standards and paperwork is the problem of maintaining an adequate ground-handling labor force. Walton, of EMO Trans, said that improperly trained employees at O’Hare are a chronic problem, which he said he blames on shippers. “I’m surprised the airlines haven’t charged a convenience fee,” Walton said.
On average, it takes eight to nine weeks to train and properly vet a ground handler for security. “Once they get clearance, they’re a valuable commodity,” Walton said, meaning they’re free to work for another ground handling firm that may offer more money or better hours. Because ramp work is a physically demanding job, there is always a high turnover rate – a problem that is exacerbated by ground crews with the mobility of a certification.
In addition, the industry often needs to react quickly to market conditions, such as last year’s U.S. West Coast port crisis or the annual run-up of cargo shipments before the Chinese New Year. Because of the time it takes to train extra staff, these spikes in demand can lead to more ground delays.
WFS’s Bijaoui, however, said high staff turnover is not a particularly acute problem in Europe. The company’s employees, he said, “see the benefit of being part of a company that is growing and will therefore create more opportunities.”
He added that, in the U.S., staff turnover might be greater because the country has a much larger domestic employment market, which makes it easier for people to change jobs.
Dialog for a better future
Some complaints made by ground handlers and forwarders have no easy solution, but recent events at Chicago O’Hare are giving forwarders hope.
Walton, for one, said that the first few months of 2016 had been much smoother than 2015 – “like night and day.” With the port crisis over and most of last year’s road construction projects completed, congestion has been less of an issue. Later this year, a new cargo area with warehousing and additional stands will open on the north side of the airport, which will free up even more space.
One positive development that came out of the chaos of 2015 was the “Chicago Air Cargo Congestion Working Group,” a collection of ground handlers, carriers, forwarders and truckers that meets monthly to discuss potential problems.
So far the group has created a “Don’t Dispatch that Truck Yet” campaign, which makes sure the trucking firms ask three questions first: 1) is it customs-cleared? 2) are charges paid? and 3) is the freight available? Another campaign, aimed at hazardous goods, “Check it Before you Send It,” asks shippers and forwarders to complete the IATA dangerous goods checklist, double-check all shipping documents and confirm that hazardous material shipping labels are properly affixed.
Bjiaoui, of WFS, said ground-handling consolidations will likely continue because smaller companies will decide to sell or because some large players may no longer consider cargo to be their core business. But if the changes at O’Hare are any indication, perhaps all that is needed to lower temperatures between forwarders and ground handlers is a healthy dose of communication – which is a good thing, because fried eggs have no place in air cargo ULDs.
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