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Cargo transport is a lot cooler thanks to Finnair

Finland’s geographical location brings the same competitive edge to cargo transport as it does with passenger traffic. Finnair

An 80 million-euro investment is ensuring that Finnish national carrier Finnair is at the forefront of logistics automation and technical expertise.

The person manning the small security building outside the main gate of Finnair’s COOL Nordic Cargo Hub is proving difficult to locate. After some minutes of scouring the exterior, searching in vain for the guard, something catches my eye some 100 metres away: a clearly marked pedestrian entrance to the terminal.

It appears I have been trying for the last five minutes to enter the terminal entrance designated for lorries.

“That building is actually our meeting room now,” explains Finnair’s director of cargo excellence,Ari Soinola, a few minutes later, with a good-natured chuckle. “After we opened the cargo terminal in 2018, it was manned for a while, but now there is only a tablet there for lorry drivers to register themselves with.”

Such a digital-first approach can be found throughout the entirety of the cargo hub, located a stone’s throw from Helsinki Airport.

Finnair’s cargo hub enables quick loading of planes and freight trucks. Image: Finnair

“We have decided no more pen and paper and that we have to use modern devices. Once all processes are digital, you can use the data to steer people and tasks in real time,” Soinola outlines.

Inside the hub, forklifts whizz past as conveyor belts and automated cranes shift boxes from storage to racking and retrieve them for pallet build-up for planes and lorries. Operating around the clock, this orchestra of logistics ensures that pallets can be ready for loading onto planes in a mere 40 minutes.

It is, for lack of a better word, cool. Very, very cool.

Growing need for automation

It wasn’t always this way. Back at the start of the decade, Finnair was looking for ways to improve its cargo handling. Its existing cargo hub, built in 1976, had already been expanded three times and was groaning under the weight of operations. The impending arrival of larger Airbus 350 aircraft spurred the company into action, as the fleet would mean that cargo could be transported at greater volumes and speeds.

“Concept planning commenced in 2013 and the terminal opened some five years later,” Soinola recalls. “Half of this time was spent before the actual building of the terminal, with the testing of the system, then training.”

Cargo’s competitive edge is speed. Airfreight represents less than one per cent of transportation, but its value is 35 per cent. Image: Finnair

The comprehensive getting-up-to-speed of staff was needed in order to adapt to the new ways of working. Whilst numerous cargo hubs around the world can boast similarly impressive automation, where Finnair is leading the pack is in its COOL Control Center. Here all processes can be accurately tracked, as teams of experts monitor the journey of every plane and lorry.

“We wanted to move away from the old way of working and create transparency. In order to have a good functional service, we needed an understanding of the daily production targets, e.g. daily loads of import and export and special cargo, how much needs to be built to pallets by what deadline, etc.,” Soinola says.

Valuable cargo

One of the chief functions of the COOL Control Center is monitoring the temperature of every piece of sensitive cargo via digital temperature sensors and geolocation technology.

Helping facilitate the handling of delicate wares, the hub houses a number of temperature-controlled areas, each tailored to preserve cargo such as pharmaceuticals.

“The global value of transported pharma is 300 billion euros,” says Janne Tarvainen, managing director at Finnair Cargo. “Up to 12.5 billion euros’ worth is destroyed as the products need to be stored between 15 and 25 degrees.”

Finnair has also carved a niche for itself by accommodating perishables such as seafood. In fact, as a direct result of its COOL hub, it takes only 36 hours to transport salmon from Norwegian waters to a plate in Japan.

The physical proximity of the cargo hub to the airport means that temperature sensitive goods can arrive at the aircraft stand only 30 minutes before departure, further reducing the possibility of spoilage and thus underlining the hub’s competitive edge.

Future logistics

“Someone came up to me after a speech I gave at a symposium, saying, ‘We have had a lot of talk in the airfreight business about how the industry should be developed in future, but finally somebody is doing it,’” recalls Janne Tarvainen. “We are!” Image: Finnair

The continuous streamlining of operations at the COOL hub is forging a promising future for Finnair. While airfreight represents less than one per cent of global trade volume, its value is 35 per cent. Needless to say, speed is essential for this.

Couple this with Finland’s strategic geographical position as a gateway to Asia, and the company is poised for greater things. The initiatives of certain global giants are also playing into its hands. Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, for example, has recently pledged the target of door-to-door delivery globally within 72 hours.

“Without excellent data and co-operation with stakeholders, including customs, this is not possible. They are doing a lot of collaboration to create this,” Tarvainen says.

One option being tabled is performing customs operations in the air, meaning that the turnaround time for goods at the Helsinki hub would be even shorter before being sent around the EU.

According to Tarvainen, all of this pioneering change taking place is a direct reaction of an industry that has been spinning its wheels with an old-fashioned, conservative approach to doing business.

“I’m 100 per cent sure there will be a disruption of the industry soon,” he continues. “It may come from within the system, or from Amazon or Alibaba. There will be significant change.”

He pauses for a moment. “We should be prepared for the future. The disruption is coming. We want to be part of that.”

Finnair’s COOL cargo hub enables careful and speedy handling of temperature-sensitive, high-value cargo flying between East and West. Image: Finnair

COOL in numbers

36 hours is the time taken for salmon to travel from Norwegian waters to a Japanese plate via COOL.

80% of cargo flows are in transit at COOL.

65 000 kg of goods carried by Finnair Cargo is seafood cargo.

100 000 kg of special cargo is transported by Finnair Cargo every day.

1 200 solar panels are on the roof of COOL terminal.

31 000 square metres is the total capacity of COOL.

By: James O’Sullivan