Chief on Hactl turning 45: ‘efficiency is our middle name’

Hactl chief Wilson Kwong talks about sustainability, innovation, and how to simplify cargo and ground handling for the world’s top airlines.

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Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals is turning 45 this year, and you can only imagine the wealth of expertise one can learn from, from an experienced player in the air cargo and logistics supply chain. Payload Asia got a chance to do a quick email interview with Hactl’s chief, Wilson Kwong, as he shared his thoughts on sustainability, innovation, and how to simplify cargo and ground handling for the world’s top airlines in Hong Kong through transparency and automation.

How is Hactl looking to get the job done this year? Can you expound more on the company’s accelerated investment in personnel, IT and infrastructure?
Hactl is 45 years old this year. Our history has been one of investment and innovation from the beginning. We were born of the need to make better use of the restricted space at the old Kai Tak Airport, and efficiency is therefore our middle name. For this year, we will continue with the same policies that have served us so well: proactively seeking out inefficiencies and resolving them through innovation, to achieve service excellence, and constantly expanding our service portfolio in order to support our customer airlines’ efforts to win market share. This is particularly important now that cargo has taken a lead role for many combination carriers.

How many airlines are you working with right now, and where are we seeing the volume in Hong Kong? Inbound or outbound? Regional or international?
Hactl continues to serve around 100 airlines: that’s almost certainly the largest customer base at any single location globally. Our traffic profile has altered a little even in recent times, although there is slightly more focus on exports largely due to PPE shipments since Q1 2020, and booming e-commerce.

Have you observed new route requests in HKIA for charters? What kind of coordination and expertise does it take to operate and work on such flights? What is the imbalance in supply and demand telling us?
There has been strong growth in scheduled and charter freighter movements since the beginning of travel restrictions removed so much linehaul bellyhold capacity. We broke records throughout 2020 for freighter handling, with up to 120 flights per day, and up to 16 being handled simultaneously.

We view charters as a natural extension to our mainstream freighter handling business, and have operated a charter department for some years, whose function is to support first-time or occasional charter visitors to Hong Kong by providing guidance and assistance with operating rights etc. It is likely that freighters will continue to play this increased role in the provision of global uplift: you need only look at the booming P2F s conversion market, and the number of carriers leasing or buying freighters or converting existing passenger aircraft.

What are the new innovations that have the potential to help automate and perhaps ‘simplify’ the processing to make it more efficient? Which other new tech or platforms do you think would drive the industry forward?
Hactl is very advanced in automation, so we are now focusing on AI in our repetitive admin functions and cyber security, and conducting early trials with robotics in order to gain competence ready for wider applications. The vast scale of our operations means we have an unusual opportunity to fully automate processes that would not be viable for smaller operations. In particular, we feel ramp vehicle movements and some aspects of loose cargo storage and retrieval are candidates for robotics.

On an industry-wide basis, we continue to campaign for greater use of digital processes replacing paper-based ones. To play our full potential role in e-commerce, we must embrace this concept to achieve seamless and visible information flows.

Hong Kong dropped down to second world’s busiest air cargo hub for 2020, despite a more than 7 percent increase in volume vs 2019. What’s your outlook for this year?

The growth of cargo at one US airport, which is the home base for a major domestic integrator, should not be seen as any lack of performance on the part of Hong Kong. While we may currently not be able to claim the highest tonnage, we do have the widest spread of destinations, best choice of carriers and largest international traffic. As for the future, we see signs of recovery in general cargo and a boom in e-commerce and we expect to return to consistent growth.

What would be the ultimate path for cargo handling and aviation in terms of sustainability? Is it hydrogen, fuel, etc?

As a cargo handler, we are an interested observer of—but not an influence on—what happens in aviation as a whole. We focus on what we can control: our Green Terminal programme has seen massive reductions in waste, increases in recycling, reduction in energy use (for example, through our large rooftop solar farm) and banning of single-use plastics. We have won awards for our environmental policies and actions, and we hope to inspire our sector to greater efforts.

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