Shortage Of Ground Handlers Threatens Air Cargo's Fast Growth

There is record demand for air cargo, but are there enough ground handlers to manage all of the air freight?

Credit: Ted Horowitz / Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic turbocharged the growth of air cargo as e-commerce became a lifeline for quarantining consumers, but a labor shortage among airport cargo ground handling staff is curtailing growth potential.

“The pandemic has accelerated e-commerce growth by 5-10 years,”  Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) VP of airline relations and cargo service development Milton de la Paz told the Routes Americas conference. “But the pandemic exposed a lot of deficiencies in cargo handling. In the US, cargo handling is done the way our grandfathers did it. You’re still seeing forklifts moving things around airports … The pandemic shone a light on [air cargo]. It exposed us in different ways.”

Paul Bobson, the director of business development for Omni Air International (a subsidiary of US cargo specialist Air Transport Services Group), said ground handling must be modernized to keep up with cargo demand.  

“The consumer mindset has changed” because of e-commerce, driving demand for 24-72 hr. delivery windows, he said, adding: “Ground transportation cannot provide that speed. Ocean freight cannot deliver that fast. If you are sitting on your couch and want something within 48 hr., only air freight is going to do it. The demand is only going to increase. But cargo ground servicing has just been decimated … You’re not seeing those people [who worked in ground handling before the pandemic] return to those jobs.”

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) air service development director Elliot Paige said there is no way to hire back enough ground handlers to solve increasing numbers of hold-ups at airport cargo facilities. “E-commerce is here to stay,” he explained. “We’ve let the genie out of the bottle. Consumers expect orders to arrive tomorrow at the latest. One of the biggest bottlenecks is airport ground handling. Companies like Amazon, I think, are going to take over that ground handling.”

He added that the ground handling labor shortage “is not just a COVID problem. We had it before.” Paige noted that in order to ship air cargo at a low enough cost to make business sense, “you can’t pay handlers … We’re going to need to rely on buildings that are operated by robots.”

De la Paz agreed that airports and cargo operators will need to rely on “robotics and automation” to meet rising air cargo demand. “Hiring more ground handlers is not realistic,” he said. “It’s not viable. The labor shortage situation is not going to get better in the cargo handling sector.”

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