Covid-19 cases among staff, CNY holiday lead to cargo being stuck at Changi Airport

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SINGAPORE - A triple whammy of Covid-19 infections among airport staff, surge in shipments and the Chinese New Year holiday has led to severe delays in the processing of cargo at the usually efficient Changi Airport terminals.

Containers that usually take hours to process have been taking days for the past two weeks, freight forwarders said.

In a statement to The Straits Times on Saturday (Feb 5), a spokesman for Sats, Changi Airport’s chief ground handler for airfreight, confirmed the build-up of cargo.

It was caused by the surge in cargo shipments pre-Chinese New Year, lower volume of cargo picked up by agents due to the Chinese New Year holiday, and disruption to normal deployment levels caused by Covid-19 infection. 

It also confirmed that there was one positive polymerase chain reaction test among its 240 cargo import staff and several others testing positive using the antigen rapid tests.

“Cargo imports is the only operation affected by the delay while all other ground handling operations, including passenger services and aircraft handling, are operating normally.

“Sats has deployed additional manpower from other parts of its operations to alleviate the situation and 70 per cent of the backlog has already been cleared,” the spokesman said.

It added that it expects cargo import operations to return to normal by Feb 8. 

Concerned freight forwarders had written in to ST to say that the build-up has led to delays in the delivery of imported goods, from electronics to books, to merchants. 

Ships waiting for urgent parts brought in by airfreight are also marooned at Singapore’s ports, while others are staying behind schedule to receive their shipment, they said.

Videos taken from inside and outside Sats’ terminals show pallets of unopened cargo piling outside the usual cargo holding areas.

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In a Jan 21 statement to ST, Sats said it will ensure that any delays caused by the implementation of heightened safety measures do not result in additional costs to customers.

To keep operations going, the ground handler has also recalled some employees and given staff more incentives to return to work during their days off, while alternative sites have been set up to store cargo units.

In a notice dated Jan 31 that ST has seen, Sats told shipping companies and freight forwarders that 26 of its 240 cargo import staff have been affected by quarantine measures, although 25 of them had not tested positive and were only isolating as a precaution.

“Meanwhile, we seek your understanding and patience while we continue to work closely with you and your team to manage this dynamic situation on the ground,” the notice read. 

Sats added in the notice: “A crisis management team has been set up to closely monitor the situation and to activate business continuity plans. We have assigned staff from other operational areas to assist the import team.”

Sats is one of two companies with cargo terminals here. The other is dnata, which has not faced any disruptions in cargo movement.

A managing director of a freight forwarder with 40 years of experience, who requested anonymity, said the delay is costing his clients money, with contracts being affected and companies claiming damages against one another.

Some of them are considering diverting their shipments to another airport so that they can receive the cargo there, but with the rising freight costs, diverting 100kg of goods could cost them $2,000 more.

“Singapore used to be able to clear one shipment within eight hours after the flight touches down but now it’s taking more than eight days,” he said.

“The cost will be very hefty and we ourselves are expecting claims from our customers for these delays.

“We are also concerned that the backlog of cargo, once cleared from Sats terminals, may cause congestion in our own warehouse due to cancellation of contracts and must be stored till we can forward them to other airports,” he added.

Shipping companies said that extra costs charged by the Maritime Port Authority of Singapore for their ships overstaying at ports while awaiting supplies should be waived.

A shipping company spokesman, who declined to be named, said: “We can’t really avoid staying longer than scheduled. We are waiting for instructions from our clients too.”

The International Air Transport Association said in January that key air hubs from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Amsterdam’s Schiphol were all reporting congestion due to manpower shortages and insufficient storage space.

Just last month, Changi Airport Group said rising demand has led to a rebound in airfreight from January to November last year. 

It hit 1.76 million tonnes during the period, or 96 per cent of airfreight throughput over the same period pre-pandemic in 2019.

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