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Q&A with Hendrik Leyssens VP Global Operations Cargo Swissport

Cargo iQ member Swissport has had to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic to meet new challenges and changing demands.

The ground handler's Vice President of Global Operations Cargo, Hendrik Leyssens, who is also on the Cargo iQ board, explains how Swissport is dealing with the crisis and the new normal that is coming.

Q) How has Swissport responded globally during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The first priority has been the health and safety of our staff. Right from the beginning, Swissport has taken the necessary steps to make sure our staff is safe and healthy. Additional safety precautions have been taken, extra personal protection equipment (PPE) was made available to our staff, and communication was increased.

On the business side, the pandemic has a massive impact on Swissport due to the near total collapse of the global aviation market with most airlines grounding large parts of their fleet, which meant passenger business has temporarily disappeared along with baggage numbers.

As a consequence, our revenue in April this year is down 80%, compared to the same period in 2019; it is likely to be a very challenging rest of the year for Swissport.

Our air cargo business has also been severely impacted. There is some extra business at airports with large freighter operations like Amsterdam, Basel, East Midlands, Liege, and London Stansted.

However, that is only a thin silver lining in the face of so much belly capacity on passenger aircraft gone. Some 50% of global cargo volumes is normally flying in the bellies of passenger aircraft.

Q) Have your ground handling operations and business changed much since the start of the pandemic?

Dramatically. Cargo makes up 20% of our revenue and the other 80% are from airport ground handling services like check-in, baggage handling, refuelling, ramp, pushback, and other handling services.

We are seeing an unprecedented collapse of business volumes in both sectors. To make it tangible: In Switzerland, 95% of all flights scheduled for April were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In April, Swiss International Air Lines operated just five to ten daily flights on average instead of the normal 400 flights per day at Zurich Airport. For Swissport, it means that we are doing almost no passenger service, baggage, or ramp handling.

In May, it may pick up a little, but the forecast is still minus 90% of flights compared to May 2019. We are hopeful that by the end of year, we will be back to 70% of last year’s volume, but there is a long way to go.

Q) How great has it been to see how your employees have responded during the crisis and the industry as a whole?

Our employees are our most important and most valuable asset. They make the difference for our customers, day-in, day-out. The truly tragic part is that personnel costs also makes up for about 70% of Swissport’s total cost and so we had no choice but to rapidly reduce our headcount across the Swissport organization.

By the end of April our pre-crisis workforce of 64,000 was down to less than 15,000 on active duty. Thankfully, we were able to enrol 40,000 of our colleagues in state-supported furlough and short-time work programs. It allowed us to keep qualified and security-cleared staff on board, preserving their skill and availability. Sadly, some 10,000 had to be let go nonetheless.

It has been fantastic to see how our teams across the globe have joined forces to withstand the pressure that this crisis has brought on our company. Additionally, this crisis shows the flexibility of our industry.