Slow flying is clearly not an option for airlines and the air cargo industry. Biofuel and other renewable technologies are therefore the focus of intense research and test programmes, and engine manufacturers are making remarkable progress in improving the efficiency of their products.
Yet it would be foolhardy to imagine that our aircraft will be able to fly around powered entirely by renewable fuels anytime soon. Which in turn leads to the conclusion that we will continue to be an industry that contributes to the extraction of finite natural resources and overall emissions.
This might be a depressing thought for a father like myself, much closer to the end of my career than to its beginning: I should surely not bequeath a world with depleted resources, with a more stressed environment, to my children, and know that my entire career has been spent contributing to that environmental impact. I have, after all, been able to enjoy the pristine beauty of so many corners of the world, and to appreciate this precious, fragile gift that we all share. But this is the thought of somebody who looks at logistics, and air logistics in particular, in isolation.
In isolation? Is there any business less isolated than an airline, which by definition connects communities, cities and countries around the world? Which, in the bellies of passenger aircraft or the main deck of freighters, carries millions of the most diverse shipments on behalf of the widest range of businesses imaginable?
So we should not, indeed cannot, look at air logistics in isolation. Therefore I looked up the profile of some companies that have made sustainability the core of their corporate culture and business model: companies like Unilever, or Interface who have taken gigantic strides towards making the world a better place.
And I read that the word that occurs most frequently in all the stories they create and publish is – you guessed it – logistics. They of course do make every effort to reduce transportation costs and emissions, but as they do not look at any aspect of their business in isolation, I read that they drive innovation and new technologies (opening up whole new supply chain variations and possibilities); or adopt leasing and reverse logistics instead of one-off delivery of products. The permutations are indeed seemingly endless.
The goal, always, is sustainability. The solution always is, or involves, logistics.
Therefore, while our industry may be on the negative side of the balance when it comes to emissions, its purpose is to help all other client industries reduce their own emissions by implementing and executing optimal supply-chains.
Paradoxically, client industries strive to reduce transportation, or its costs and impact, so that commodities and products shift to slower, cheaper modes of transportation or are sourced locally altogether. But the very success of such transformation of supply chains is to create new demand and new solutions, with entirely new products or components requiring – yes, airfreight.
This short analysis demonstrates that – just as air logistics cannot be properly understood in isolation – so, emissions also are just one aspect of sustainability. If our industry is to function optimally, if it is to embrace and reach bold goals, we must learn to look at the bigger picture. And there we see vibrant and dynamic enterprises competing fiercely to meet the needs of their customers; engaging creatively with all their suppliers to streamline and constantly improve their processes; harnessing new technologies; creating sustainable and exciting employment; monitoring and reducing environmental impact: in short, bring people, planet and profit into a virtuous symbiosis to secure our collective future.
So air logistics is a key driver not only of global trade, but of civilization.
Oliver Evans is the chief Cargo Officer, Swiss International Air Lines and chairman of The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA).