Univ.-Prof. Dr. Thorsten Blecker & Dipl.-Ing. oec. Niclas Jepsen: Risks and safety challenges for the growing air freight service market

The globalisation of the economy has also led to a growing air freight factor. In recent years, the safety issue has come to the fore in this context – a complex topic which is supposed to harmonise conflicting interests. 

Air freight plays an important role in Germany’s economy. While from 2007 to 2012, exports via air freight from Germany to overseas made up only two per cent in terms of the quantity of goods, for example, they accounted for 30 per cent of the value of the goods. For each tonne transported in foreign trade, the value in air freight exceeds other transport carriers many times over. The average value of goods for the transport carriers using the railway system, the sea or the road are between 1,000 and 3,000 euros per tonne; in air freight, by contrast, their arithmetic mean is over 70,000 euros per tonne.1

In a survey conducted by the Ifo Institute, more than 56 per cent of companies from all sectors stated that air transport is important or even very important for them. In some industries, such as mechanical engineer­­ing (90 per cent), automotive engineering (80 per cent) or the chemical industry (79 per cent), air transport is even more pivotal. Some stakeholders, including Airbus, assume that the volume of cargo increases at an average annual rate of 4.9 per cent.2 Air transport is also very important for the German labour market. According to estimates of the Bundes­verband der Deutschen Luftverkehrswirtschaft (Ger­­man federal association of the aviation industry – BDL), there are 324,500 jobs in Germany that are directly related to air traffic, 352,700 that indirectly depend on air traffic and another 145,900 that have been induced by air traffic.1 In other words, the total number of jobs created through air traffic in Germany amounts to 823,100. Particularly in security-relevant areas, new jobs have been created as a result of in­­creasing security requirements.

Growing national and international security requirements cause an enormous increase in costs in air freight as well as in the entire air transport and affect the economic sector. Prior to the attacks of 11 Sep­tem­­ber 2001, the share of costs spent on security measures at airports was between five and eight per cent. Today, these costs make up more than 25 per cent of the overall costs at airports.3

In light of the previously mentioned significance for the entire economy, any measures intended to increase se­­curity in the growing air freight market must not, under any circumstances, be taken at the expense of efficiency. Instead, measures must be implemented which in­­­­crease both the security and the efficiency of air freight. In this context, consideration must always be given to the entire air freight transport chain. Increased security measures for parts of transport chains do not necessarily have to lead to an increase in security of the overall transport chain if a lower security level is applied to other parts. When new measures are developed, especially vulnerable areas and security holes in supply chains must be taken into account, but at the same time, the remaining parts must not be neglected. Moreover, an excessive focus on an individual risk, e. g. due to aimless political activism, may even raise the level of insecurity and the risk disposition of a supply chain through the misallocation of scarce resources. This cor­­relation has been clearly shown, for example, for maritime transports. A study conducted by the GAO on the scanning of 100 per cent of all containers for import into the USA comes to the conclusion that an excessive focus on the scanning of all containers and the associated tie-up of resources may lead to an in­­crease in se­­curity risks at other points of maritime sup­­ply chains.4 Similar correlations also apply to air freight, therefore the findings of other transport carriers should also be heeded in this area. Consequently, regulations should be devised such that they lead to an optimum and homogeneous security level along the entire supply chain, as well as nationally and internationally.

Security-relevant incidents in air freight as well as in all other parts of air traffic (e. g. hi-jacking or parcel bombs) resulted in a great number of regulations in the past. Hence, for many years, air traffic has been strongly char­­acterised by regulations that were de­vised within a short period of time due to public pressure, but without taking a holistic view. Regulation (EC) No. 2320/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2002 establishing com­­mon rules in the field of civil aviation security was adopted following the events of 11 September 2001. In Germany, the measures for air security have been laid down in the Air Security Act, which has been in place since 15 January 2005. More and more laws and regulations have been enacted as a political re­­sponse to terrorist activities such as (attempted) at­­tacks. The provisions are constantly updated and ex­­panded to take into account current incidents and the resulting changed risk assessment as well as the cur­­rent state of technology. However, their actual suitability for practical application is not ensured in the process, so that the stakeholders involved are confronted with a vast number of regulations which some­­­times even contradict each other. Areas of conflict include, for example, the protection of privacy and the storage of security-relevant data as well as contradictions or the lack of clear differentiation between Euro­­pean and national regulations. Additionally, the competencies and tasks assigned to the different German ministries regarding security in air traffic further in­­crease the complexity for the stakeholders involved. In comparison to other transport carriers, air freight is strongly characterised by regulations and complex processes as it is.


In many cases, air freight is not transported in pure cargo planes, but also together with passengers as belly freight in the underfloor area of airliners. Glo­­bally, approx­­imately half of all air freight is transported as belly freight, the other half on cargo-only flights. 5 Due to the suppos­­edly greater attractiveness for terrorist attacks, the se­­curity requirements for belly freight exceed the already high requirements applying to freight in pure transport planes. This leads to inhomogeneous security requirements and levels within the air freight business. On the one hand, this raises the question whether this makes sense, and on the other hand, it increases the complexity for the stakehol­­ders involved due to deviating processes, requirements etc.

The adaptability of terrorists and other criminals to any form of security measures makes it more difficult to increase and maintain the security level and re­­quires a permanent evolution of security measures. While the security measures and levels are consistently developed further, it must be ensured at the same time that they are practical, efficient and homogeneous on a re­­gional, national and international level. Excessively high costs or the occurrence of distortions of competition or even trade barriers must be avoided nationally as well as internationally. Currently, national implementations of EU regulations (e. g. regarding the use of technologies or training) in the 27 member states result in inhomo­­geneous security requirements and thus to competitive disadvantages. As opposed to other locations within the EU, this applies to Germany, for example, because it may be possible to ship goods faster and at lower costs from neighbouring countries. German forwarders look into this and sometimes move their shipping to adjacent EU states like the Netherlands. In some cases, security-relevant training programmes, which are re­­ciprocally recognised within the EU, differ greatly from one EU state to another in terms of requirements and scope. Stricter requirements in individual countries by no means result in a higher international security level, as air freight is transported across borders; they merely raise costs and prove that it is necessary to use a holistic approach. Also, within the EU, security statuses of freight re­­ceived from member states are recognised, even though they may differ due to a different interpretation of the provisions. Hence, it is highly questionable whether security is actually increased by stricter stipulations set out by individual states with regard to se­­curity checks. The “Secure air cargo transport chain: concepts, strategies and technologies for se­­­cure and efficient air freight transport chains“ (SiLuFra) project, which is headed by the Hamburg University of Tech­nology and in which all relevant stakeholders (authorities, airline companies, logistics ex­­perts, forwarders etc.) are involved, takes on this chal­­­­lenge and has made it its task to simultaneously unlock se­­curity and efficiency po­­tentials for a branch of the air transport sector. Se­­curity measures are designed and integrated in the remaining processes in a way that ensures that the pro­­tective measures can be expanded and modified flexibly. To prepare for further in­­creas­ing social and regulatory security requirements and to be able to continue to operate efficiently and competitively, all stakeholders of the air cargo transport chain should act proactively. New incidents or regulations should not be the prioritised motivation for developments related to air freight security. This com­­mitment should be supported responsibly by political decision-makers and authorities, bearing in mind the needs of the industry.

The author studied at the University of Duisburg and earned his doctorate there. After working in the industry in the area of satellite communication, Dr. Blecker habilitated in Klagenfurt, Austria. Since 2004, he has been a professor for business logistics and general management at the Hamburg University of Technology (TUHH).



The author studied industrial engineering in Hamburg and has been a member of the research staff at the TUHH since 2010. His research topics in­clude supply chain security, supply chain risk, air freight security and maritime security.