When DB Schenker contracted with The City of New York to transport and deliver personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers, the logistics provider’s primary goal was to get medical goggles, gloves, and gowns to the healthcare and senior-care providers that sorely needed the protective gear.
This special relationship was further accentuated by the fact Iceland Air agreed to convert several of their passenger aircraft to cargo planes to accommodate our needs. The cargo planes created an additional 200 cubic feet of cargo space that was then used to pick up shipments in China and transport the goods to the U.S. and other destinations on direct charter flights.
In this Q&A, DB Schenker’s Head of Airfreight, Americas, Asok Kumar explains the impetus behind this effort, how it was mobilized, and the company’s future plans for this partnership.
Q: Why did DB Schenker select Icelandair to partner with for this effort?
A: DB Schenker entered a specific commercial engagement with Icelandair. Through this partnership, the airline converted three of its aircraft for our exclusive use. Wherever we needed to deploy a plane, based on demand, Icelandair would accommodate that request. This is unique in and of itself, but we also have a Passenger to Cargo (PTC) planes relationship with Icelandair. Through this relationship, we’ve engaged with our regular partner carriers and used the converted aircraft more on a scheduled basis, versus a specific one-time route (as with the PPE deliveries).
Q: What had to be changed to transform a passenger plane into a cargo plane?
A: Icelandair took out the seats, which allows us to use both the upper deck (i.e., the “passenger cabin”) and the cargo hold. Clearly the limitation with the upper cabin is that the size of the door remains as it was with the passenger configuration; it can’t be enlarged. As a result, we can’t move big loads into that area. We also can’t use equipment to load that section of the plane, which means that we have to hand-carry loads into the passenger cabin.
Q: How do these challenges impact PPE transport?
A: Well, the aircraft is actually ideal for PPE and other pharmaceutical shipments, which are typically smaller and lighter. Interestingly, we’ve developed conveyor belts that are used to support those operations. Using a conveyor belt, we can move a load the distance leading up the passenger steps. From there, someone brings the PPE into the door where another conveyor belt feeds it down to the end of the aircraft. Finally, people have to physically stack the boxes on the floor and secure them with nets.
Q: Are there other challenging aspects of this operation?
A: It’s important to keep in mind that the loading time was quite extensive and the process largely manual even with conveyors. There was congestion in the terminals and extensive checks, however, despite these limitations, we were able to serve our customers around the globe reliably and on time.
Q: What other strategies is DB Schenker using in the current market?
A: With the PPE movements coming down, there’s been a drop in demand for these types of aircraft. We’ve seen carriers scaling back and returning them—not necessarily to service because there’s very limited passenger demand—to their home bases. In the event there is a second wave of COVID, or if airfreight capacity doesn’t return to the market as quickly as we would expect, we’ve extended the flight operations that we rolled out during the peak of the capacity crunch. We’ve made a decision to continue to sustain them, depending on the lane and the market, up until the end of this year. This will ensure that we’re prepared for any second outbreak and/or a situation where capacity becomes extremely tight (as it was back in March and April).
Q: What’s ahead for the Icelandair partnership?
A: Our relationship with Icelandair required the conversion of three aircraft as part of that agreement and it has since converted back two of those into passenger planes. One still remains in the cargo configuration for possible future use. We’ve made a conscious decision to continue to operate that plane for essential cargo, even though demand has come down in the current environment. Nevertheless, we’ve decided that we will continue to maintain the flight operations so we can continue to service the market and our customers. Our core strength continues to be our own international network, which includes DB Schenker branches in more than 130 countries.