Strong collaboration helps SkyTeam Cargo’s alliance connect the world

As the world’s only global air cargo alliance, SkyTeam Cargo has witnessed how the international airfreight landscape has evolved since it was founded over two decades ago. With 11 member airlines, 15 origin hubs, 150 countries, 60 shared warehouses and a fleet of over 2700 aircraft, including 45 full freighters, the alliance has witnessed how customers have become more demanding, as the sector offers more choice and increased competition requires cargo handlers to excel every day.


“The world has become very dependent on worldwide logistics; it is essential to day-to-day life, as evidenced by the pandemic and also when the Suez Canal got blocked by the Ever Given in 2021,” Nico van der Linden, Vice President at SkyTeam Cargo, said. “SkyTeam cargo members cover the globe with their combined network, whether that’s shipping fresh roses from Kenya, hi-tech from Korea or pharmaceuticals from Switzerland.”

20 years of branded products

When the alliance was originally launched, branded product ranges hardly existed throughout the industry. Only a few carriers had started to explore and implement them. SkyTeam Cargo recently marked two decades of delivering efficient, seamless shipments through its key pillar products.

SkyTeam Cargo was a frontrunner in designing and implementing a dedicated product portfolio, launched in 2002 and rebranded in 2018, that brought these ideas under one branded solution built around four pillars. The products - Express, General, Specialised and Customised – work to ensure bespoke and simplistic shipping solutions are available to around 800 destinations worldwide.

“What made it unique back then, and it remains unique today, is that all our members have the same product portfolio with the same specification. This is something that doesn’t even exist in the passenger business, for example where every business class of airlines under an alliance or other form of cooperation has a different name and specification. In a business-to-business market like air cargo, it is very beneficial to have this unique branded portfolio because it makes shipping cargo much more straightforward for our customers,” van der Linden stated.

SkyTeam Cargo benefits from strong collaboration between its alliance members and a vast array of shared resources, with this being the key driving force behind the success of the international grouping. Shared warehouses help to connect networks and feature what’s needed to handle every type of cargo safely and efficiently. “Connecting our members’ networks fills blank spots and offers more routing options,” van der Linden explained.

Boosting efficiency and sustainability
As with others within the airfreight industry, SkyTeam Cargo has a keen focus on finding where the alliance and each member can improve their efficiency. Digital operations have been critical to this, with e-freight, for example, replacing two-thirds of the paper documents required for air cargo with electronic messages, lower costs and increased turnaround.

“In the early days of my airline career, I was already involved in IATA’s paperless project. Back then, we calculated that as a single airline we were transporting the equivalent of two Boeing 747Fs just of paperwork every year…imagine the cost and waste on a worldwide scale,” van der Linden said. “The cargo industry has a reputation of being traditional and not very innovative, but this is changing. Digital operations aren’t just critical, they are crucial.”

However, the speed at which evolution is occurring in the sector is not fast enough, with SkyTeam Cargo urging the industry to get its “act together and speed up” digitisation. “It was not only e-commerce but also the Covid pandemic that made our industry realise we had to catch up. Digitisation provides a faster, more efficient means to ship cargo globally, both for our airlines and customers, particularly in terms of tracking visibility. I am excited to see the changes coming as they will transform our industry for the better,” van der Linden stated.

SkyTeam Cargo’s members operate modern fleets and are receiving deliveries of new, more fuel-efficient aircraft, with many aircraft on order. Some of these aircraft are up to 25% more fuel-efficient than the planes they replace, which helps reduce emissions. “Fleet renewal is crucial if our industry is serious about reducing climate change,” van der Linden added.

The SkyTeam Flight Challenge was held in May this year and challenged our members to find new and innovative ways to operate more sustainably – including their cargo operations. SkyTeam and its members are committed to minimising their carbon footprint by searching for all kind of initiatives that will help drive important changes and make a difference.

Post-pandemic rebound
The pandemic shifted the industry’s view on cargo and just how vital it is, not only to the world economy, but also in terms of global health. Airlines became a lifeline for shipping vaccines quickly, efficiently and safely across the world, helping to protect millions of lives. “Cargo’s expertise in handling Pharma meant that the necessary logistics were already in place. We were ‘good to go’ as soon as the global vaccination programmes rolled out,” van der Linden explained.

As to the speed of the rebound, van der Linden warned that it is “going to be a marathon”, especially given the slowdown of global economies. “A recession is sure to have an impact on the recovery path of airlines, but our industry has weathered similar storms in the past and I am certain it can recover again.”

“The pandemic made it really clear just how important logistics – and air cargo’s contribution - is to airlines’ bottom line. During COVID, air cargo proved a crucial asset which helped airlines to mitigate the dramatic drop in passenger revenues,” he added. “For passenger airlines that were able to fly belly cargo only or used cargo in cabin processes; this helped many to survive. The pandemic really opened the airline industry’s eyes to the importance of cargo.”

As to the future, SkyTeam Cargo is optimistic that the airfreight sector will remain a key player in the skies, rather than being relegated back to a side project for many in the industry. “Cargo opportunities/revenue could even be a key decision factor, instead of an afterthought when airlines review their networks. It is a real fundamental change.”

This article was published on the Air Cargo Week on the 19th of December 2022.