'We invested in digitalisation to reinvent the work environment'
Khangi Khoza, the first woman appointed as the CEO of Swissport South Africa, part of Swissport International, a leading airport ground services and cargo handling services provider, talks to Lakshmi Ajay, about riding through the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent staff cuts at the company, its revival, its journey towards digitalization and about Swissport's ambitious plans for South Africa
You have made a very interesting shift in your career from banking to economics to helming an aviation company now. What drew you to a career in aviation? How do your previous jobs inform your current responsibilities? What parts of banking and economics come into play while making decisions or creating solutions in aviation?
I have always been interested in aviation and everything that surrounds it, with the ground and cargo handling being a huge part of the industry. I was aware of the fact that without successful ground or cargo handling, the aircraft will not take off or land on time, affecting not only business but everyday travel plans for hundreds of people. I began to see a pattern and I wanted to explore it and be a part of the process.
When it comes to cargo operations, I could see a shift in the global economy – the goods must travel fast, on time, and in secure and safe conditions, to match the expectations of the modern world and to have immediate availability of goods. Therefore the preferred option of transportation is air cargo, allowing this line of business to grow.
My background as an economist allows me to see the business not only from the operational point of view, but holistically, with its financial and managerial aspects, and of course, financial gains are a vital part of a successful business.
My experience has also taught me to be very detail-oriented, with a logical take on things, and a factual approach. These are very important in such a fast-paced industry, such as aviation, where the smallest decision has a huge impact. My role is to ensure that the operation prioritises Swissport's core values: customer-centricity, operational excellence, revenue potential, and efficiency and cost and I align those with safety, sustainability, and innovation.
You took over the reins of your current role at a time when the global pandemic was still at its most lethal period. Before the pandemic, Swissport SA had about 3000 employees, and that was later reduced to around 1600. What kind of resiliencies have the pandemic brought about in decision-making or creating resilient supply chains and agility in the organization. Has there been an augmentation of the staff at Swissport SA post the pandemic? Do mention the details of the same?
Yes, the pandemic affected businesses and all industries globally in an unprecedented way, and South Africa was affected as well. I believe that in such situations, the leadership must provide the right example and reassurance to the staff.
One of the most important tasks was to keep the teams motivated and realigned with the new reality. Many procedures were changed, we introduced new safety measures, and new processes, and the times were definitely uncertain. Our people are resilient and hard-working and they stayed engaged throughout the pandemic, allowing Swissport to provide services, especially for the cargo handling.
I feel obliged to provide the best working environment and create means to enhance one's skills to thrive at one's job. For example, we introduced a bursary scheme which was then extended to our employee's children in higher education.
We also benefit from Swissport's global network, by offering our staff job opportunities in various locations. Finally, we invested in digitalisation to reinvent the work environment, making it safer, more efficient, and simply better. Swissport has recently rolled out a global recruitment campaign and we are actively taking part in a hiring process.
What kind of air cargo capacity has the company handled in the last year and the first quarter of 2022 and what kind of growth are you expecting going forward in the air cargo vertical? What can you tell us about the company's plans for growing this vertical?
2022 has been so far a very busy time for Swissport's air cargo business line, both in South Africa and globally. In 2021 Swissport handled 5.1 million tonnes of air freight in over 100 cargo centres with 119 cargo warehouses, compared to 4.6 million tonnes in 2019. Our plans for the next few years are even more ambitious!
In South Africa, we are concentrating on growing the network with all global aviation players and looking to expand our footprint. We also want to strengthen our position as a pharma, perishable, and e-commerce goods handler in our two facilities – Johannesburg and Cape Town. We are currently looking into the additional certification processes to be fully compliant with IATA requirements.
Operationally the teams aim at providing customers with the most efficient service, on all levels, for example by enabling forwarders to pre-book slots and therefore reduce their waiting times. In the Johannesburg cargo facility, we have launched self-service kiosks with advantages in process improvement, efficiency and security. We have also trialled an artificial intelligence (AI) based solution called Cargo Eye which will lead to optimised cargo loads on our customers' flights and ULD containers by 5%.
I believe that digitization of the aviation industry is a must, and I support all initiatives of innovation in all of Swissport's hubs and locations in South Africa, making the organisation a leader in the cargo handling business.
What are some plans regarding the company's goal of reducing its carbon footprint that you can share with us? What sustainability initiatives is the organisation embracing, going forward?
Swissport puts a great emphasis on sustainable solutions that reduce a negative impact on the environment. We are implementing a number of solutions globally.
For example, at our newly opened cargo hub in Vienna, we introduced eActros, a heavy-duty electric truck by Mercedes Benz (the very first in Austria) which provides shuttle services between Swissport's cargo facility and airside warehouses.
Many of our warehouses globally are equipped with solar panels. We are looking into having most of the facilities in the region, including South Africa, powered by a renewable source of energy. In the region, Swissport Morocco has been operating electric vehicles and those will now be introduced to more locations.
Finally, our drive towards efficiency, improved quantities and timings, flexible solutions, and customer-centricity – contribute to a reduced impact on the environment.
What is Swissport's current presence in South Africa and what is the size of its workforce?
Swissport South Africa was established in 1998 and has been providing high-quality ground and cargo handling services to over 50 commercial airlines for the past 24 years.
We operate at 6 airports, namely O R Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, Cape Town International Airport, King Shaka International Airport in Durban, Chief Dawid Stuurman International Airport in Port Elizabeth, King Phalo Airport in East London, and George Airport. We currently employ approximately 1,800 staff members.
You have spoken about how your organisation offers good training grounds for a career in aviation. What initiatives and support have been offered by the company for training employees or interns for a career in aviation?
We provide a wide range of training to support our employees in realising their full potential. Our Global Training Unit develops and implements technical standards, while Swissport's Global Learning & Development Unit is responsible for processes and standards in performance assessment, talent management, and leadership development.
We also enrolled a number of employees in a staff development programme called Nalithuba (which translated from the Zulu language means "This is the opportunity"), which is an internally developed advancement programme. Finally, Swissport South Africa is an active supporter (and one of the first Swiss companies) to enrol in the YES (Youth Employment Service) programme, a government initiative to provide internships to young people with an option to commit to full employment.
I personally believe in the importance of the YES programme, which not only allows young people to enter the job market by providing them with applicable, hands-on training, but also offers them the opportunity to develop and thrive. And in aviation, as in any other industry, it is the country's youth that will be the next generation of the active workforce on all levels.
What technologies will Swissport South Africa be taking up to embrace digitalisation which is now becoming a mainstay for supply chains and especially the air cargo sector?
Swissport is investing in innovation and digitisation and is ensuring that the operation is future-proof and result-driven for our customers. The use of data and metrics will drive efficiency and effectiveness. Our operation, being ground and cargo handling, relies on the use of data, AI, automation, and robotics and those will be embraced further.
Swissport has recently launched a new mobile application and issued new handheld devices for cargo that further digitises the warehousing process and offers real-time visibility on cargo shipments. In Johannesburg, we are currently having a trial run of Speedcargo's AI-based solutions Cargo Eye and Cargo Mind. The technology will help improve efficiency and increase capacity in warehouses and on flights.
We have also implemented self-service kiosks with door management and slot booking systems to improve time scheduling, with decreased lost waiting time.
What would you say are some recent moves in the right direction, when it comes to propelling the aviation sector in Africa?
The aviation industry in South Africa is expected to grow, both in the passenger and cargo business. We will see new routes providing better connections within the continent and beyond and new airlines emerging to fill the market gaps. The health and safety of passengers and aviation employees will continue to remain a priority with the introduction of new, efficient, and contactless solutions.
I believe that the new market will provide more collaborations across industries and business lines. Opportunities now exist to drive meaningful transformation across the broader industry and there is significant potential in partnering with different partners and stakeholders for the sector's revival.