Agile Air Cargo Handling Processes Thanks to Artificial Intelligence

For the global economy, 2020 will be remembered as a year full of challenges. Since the pandemic unfolded, air cargo has acted as a lifeline for the international trade by keeping tons of goods flowing worldwide. Online retailers especially have profited from this mode of transportation. The advocacy of social distancing seems to have boosted the e-commerce industry. Only in the U.S., the sector rose 18% compared to 2018 levels. With Christmas, Black Friday, and other popular shopping events right around the corner, airlines expect a historical peak season. Having agile air cargo handling processes will be crucial to respond to these high demands.

Bracing for upcoming challenges: Strong peak, tight capacity

Over the past months, global air cargo has been continuously showing positive developments. The Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated airfreight demand in September at 8% higher than in the previous month. Moreover, the industry-wide cargo load factor reached a record of up to 10.6% higher compared to 2019. Regarding global capacity, IATA reported an improvement of 4% over the figures seen in August. Although freighters´ capacity increased, the resurgence of COVID-19 in several countries could slow down the sector’s recovery.

Belly space in widebody aircraft has shrunk due to low levels of passenger flights. The airline association indicated that traffic volumes in September were down 72.8% year-on-year. To compensate for the loss of valuable capacity, carriers will have to adjust their schedules to add more flights. Despite strong indications of unprecedented shipping volumes during the year-end season, the high uncertainty around the Coronavirus makes it difficult for operators to predict when it is the right moment to ramp up operations and how. Seeking operational efficiency is likely to become the main objective for carriers. Artificial intelligence (AI) can help with that by setting the basis for agile air cargo handling processes.

AI as a catalyst for agile air cargo handling processes

Following the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunities to implement Artificial Intelligence (AI) have increased. AI, though, is not a new term in aviation. The industry is no stranger to its advantages. For years, machine learning has served as a basis to create applications for solving complex problems. Among the varied uses of this technology such as airport security and data sharing, it has proven to be especially useful in making predictions. By analyzing historic flight information, managers have been able to optimally plan their operations. In a volatile context where the available staff and equipment are restrained, smart algorithms enhance resource allocation based on requirements.

How does artificial intelligence enable agile air cargo handling processes? We will take, as an example, the transport of airfreight on the apron.

Flexibility is number one − carriers need to incorporate agile optimization into their cargo processes in order to maintain efficient global delivery chains.

Smart tour planning

When it comes to reaching more agile air cargo handling processes on the apron, operators analyze the type of item that needs to be transported to the specific aircraft and the vehicle to be used for that purpose. The idea is to maximize truck capacity utilization with every trip to effectively manage opportunities and risks for a combination of flights. Compliance with new regulations or Service Level Agreements (SLAs) (for instance when carrying cargo on passenger cabin) must be guaranteed.

An AI-based solution can improve resource management and provide transparency in the decision-making process:

  • Intuitive visualization of tour details (flights, products, locations, task times…) facilitates real-time responses to changing situations.
  • In combination with telematics, smart software indicates the level of progress of each tour.
  • Actual waiting times at control posts can be calculated within seconds.
  • The system enables the entry of pre-established rules that reflect new SLAs for each cargo item.
  • The best possible tours between aircraft and cargo warehouses are automatically computed.
  • The dispatcher can see the maximum and the available capacity of each truck at one glance.

Optimized driver assignments

In these hectic times, quick resourcing decisions must be made to ensure the on-time delivery of goods to the aircraft. Maximizing the efficiency of drivers is important to avoid unnecessary costs. How can airlines do that? The first step is to organize activities according to their respective priority. The main criteria for optimal task prioritization include:

  • The type of good
  • Buffer times
  • The characteristics of the activity to be performed
  • The flight urgency

Once this phase is done, dispatchers must define to whom the task should be assigned. The AI-based optimization software suggests how to allocate staff automatically based on factors such as travel time and previous activity status. The weight of these factors in the decision-making process will vary from airline to airline, depending on the goals previously defined.


The Coronavirus has caused severe disruptions in aviation. Significant shortages in air cargo capacity are likely to continue and remain the biggest challenge faced by the industry, as thousands of passenger airplanes remain grounded. To respond to upcoming requirements, airlines need strategies to be more resilient. They need to transform their business. Without agile air cargo handling processes, carriers will not be able to efficiently respond to the changing context.

Leveraging technologies based on machine learning will provide operators with the flexibility they need to meet their New Normal goals. The high uncertainty makes flight and airfreight shipping difficult to predict. Staff and resources have been drastically reduced to save costs. New regulatory requirements, and revised Service Level Agreements demand that airlines to rethink their processes. Smart planning software takes all these aspects into account. It gives users the tools to prepare for managing exceptions by comparing multiple What-if scenarios.

The full recovery of the air cargo sector can be seen as a complex journey. The dramatic growth of the e-commerce market might open opportunities to accelerate this process. Staying receptive to change can make the future of the industry brighter than we think.

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