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   Vol. 19 No. 63
Monday September 21, 2020
Helicopter Lady Up Where She Belongs
Chaitaly Mehta

A logistics professional with over 22 years of experience, Mumbai-based Chaitaly Mehta is the first woman in the family business – a third generation customs broker and a second generation freight forwarder who is at the helm of operations in her family-owned business, EKF Global Logistics (formerly Express Kargo Forwarders Private Limited).
     Her ability as a natural problem solver and keen observer has allowed her to quickly learn the tricks of the trade and carve out a niche for herself in this dynamic sector. Armed with a law degree, Mehta is sought out amongst her peers for her ability to objectively look at situations and provide valuable advice.
     She states that logistics is a simple word but with a complex connotation - it has so many branches that interconnect, overlay, yet is a strong invisible thread that ties the world economy together like what she describes as “Spiderman’s Web”!
     Mehta firmly believes that the work she and her team do, make the cogs in the wheels of World Economy go around and this, she says, is a great thrill:  “We actually make a difference in people’s lives, albeit indirectly - and it is this thought that makes me love my work and inspires me to work harder.”

Do you see the worldwide acclaim for cargo as a positive for the future of the business?

CM:  I have always believed that the cargo and logistics industries have never gotten the recognition they deserve. Cargo has always been short-changed compared to the pax because cargo occupies the belly of the aircraft and is the last priority after passengers’ baggage, courier, newspapers and human remains!
     This pandemic, however, has finally brought to light the importance and essence of the logistics industry and cargo itself. Whilst everyone was at home protecting themselves, it was us in the industry who were the frontline players ensuring that all the pharma meds, PPE kits and other essential items crucial to the COVID 19 recovery - were moved on time: Customs cleared, uplifted by the airlines, transported and delivered.
     The airlines, the airport custodians like Mumbai International Airport, Indian Customs, the transporters, Customs brokers, freight forwarders and labourers all rallied together without any thought to their personal lives and ensured all critical equipment and pharmaceuticals were delivered.
     The only cargo moving for the first three months of the pandemic were from the pharma industry and despite the breakdown in the transport sector, (for example, the mass exodus of drivers leaving their vehicles to flee to their villages at the peak of the pandemic thereby creating a chaos never before seen) the industry persevered. The customs brokers and the freight forwarders did everything humanly possible to ensure that the cargo reached their final destination.
     My company prioritized the safety of our staff and closed for a month. Thereafter we re-opened with all safety provisions. Since public transport was not available, we had and still continue to have private pickup for our staff who live far away and can’t use public transport. For our Mumbai staffers with small kids we didn’t call them to work for a couple of months. We sanitize twice a day at work and safety measures have been put in place so that those who come to work are protected to the best of our ability.
     To me, logistics is the backbone of the economy and every single vertical is important in international and domestic transportation, from labourers to forklifts and I could go on and on. The logistics industry is akin to the spinal cord of a human body. The different verticals are like the discs in the spine/vertebra and both are undervalued, taken for granted and invisible, until something goes wrong.

Chaitaly Mehta

How can air cargo best cope with the need for the effective delivery of vaccine when the antidote comes?

CM:  The air cargo industry has been dealing with the shipping of vaccines much before the average person realized the importance of a “vaccine”. The airlines, the custodians, the Customs, the freight forwarders and customs brokers are already handling huge volumes of vaccines and the infrastructure is pretty good right now. India is one of the biggest exporters of pharma in the world. However, having said that, due to COVID-19, the airlines had raised their rates so high that shipping at that cost was not practical but yet had to be done because of necessity.
     We expect that the COVID-19 vaccine will be ready soon; it would be prudent for the airlines to have air freight rates which are more in line with pre-Covid times, and instead of taking undue advantage of the circumstances, the priority should be to ensure that everyone gets the vaccine so we can finally be done with this challenging time and advance from the pandemic-hit global situation.
     The pharma companies should already be in talks with the players as in the airlines, custodians, logistics companies like ours and come up with best practices on how to deliver the vaccines efficiently. Right now, we have only a few airlines operating, but once the vaccines are ready to be shipped, all the airlines will have to restart because leaving only a few to handle the entire movement from different manufacturers could create a cartel-like situation. Capacity has to be increased because if there is no capacity, then space would go to the highest payer of freight and it would not be good for the consumers.
     The Customs, on their part, will have to ensure that they have officers available in full strength at all airports, and more importantly, that their systems are functioning optimally because their systems have in the past let-down many-a-time, resulting in increased dwell time. Since Customs is working 24x7, they are already equipped but just need to make sure all their office positions are occupied and prepared.
     For the custodians of air cargo complexes, they need to make sure that they have the space available to store the vaccines, their infrastructure is up to date, they have no labour challenges and their teams can handle the intense pressure that is going to be created. The atmosphere is going to be electric, and every person in the entire supply chain should and would feel proud of their successful contribution to save the world.
     I firmly believe that whilst the medical fraternity has saved millions of lives, our industry’s contribution is right up there and because of us, millions of lives were, and will continue to be saved.

As the story of 2020 unfolds, what can you share, especially perhaps a similar parallel experience during your time in the industry?

CM:  2020 is a year that a majority of the population hasn’t seen. We have had wars and famines and epidemics but never a pandemic, which literally brought the entire world to a standstill. I have been in the industry for the last 23 years and I have seen the depression of 2008 and at that time, I and my colleagues in the industry thought we may not survive, but, in fact, many of us did survive and victoriously so.
     I have personally never seen anything like this and to be honest the first month was overwhelming and I was struggling to grapple with the situation. The best practices that I have picked up from this are:
            Technology is our friend and we have to embrace it.
            Going forward, freight forwarders and customs brokers need to make sure they are equipped with the latest technology, so if there is a second wave, all the lessons learned should be remembered, incorporated and set into practice for smooth operations.
            Mobility is the key and it is important that at least 40 percent of your staff come from nearby areas so that in such kind of situations they can hold the fort if their colleagues who live far away can’t make it.
            Be positive and look at opportunities. Thinking of the negatives alone will suck you like nothing ever.
            Take the time to complete incomplete or pending projects, reconnect with your staff, vendors, clients and partners. It helps you and helps them.
            Collaborations are the key to survival and longevity, so actively go looking for possible ways of collaboration.
            Maintaining a healthy bank balance is the most important because if one does not have the cash, the company won’t survive.
            Invest in training of your staff because it would pay off in such situations.
            Talk frankly and openly with your staff and team members. They need assurance from you, but also the truth. Don’t paint a very grim picture but don’t give false hopes, too.
            Cost cutting doesn’t only mean firing staff, it also means reevaluating your expenditure style and reducing or getting rid of the money-guzzlers.
            Most importantly, never give up and don’t forget your journey. Since you didn’t quit when others would have expected, don’t do so now. It is the survival of the fittest but your mental game will keep you at the top, so be very strong mentally.

Can you share a favorite story from air cargo? How has the industry ramped up its services to serve during the pandemic that is outstanding when you think about your experience?

CM:  My favourite story: One of our verticals is aviation and I am very proud to say that what we do for the aviation in toto, no one else does. Others do bits and pieces, but not the whole thing. In fact, I am the only woman in India handling this vertical including helicopters and, therefore, in some circles I am called The Helicopter Lady.
     I am a third-generation Customs Broker and a second-generation freight forwarder. I am the first woman in the air cargo industry in India at my level i.e. management and also actively handling operations and field work, doing things no other woman was doing at that time.
     The aviation vertical was started by me out of sheer desperation to survive as I didn’t want to be labelled a quitter. In doing so, we broke a 40-year-old monopoly and today, we are now the biggest company in India handling this sector. Companies say they handle airlines and have aviation as a vertical but we actually do the real thing. So, yes, I am really proud of my team and myself when I look back and see how far we have come today.
     This industry, especially in India is heavily dependent on people even though we are now technologically-equipped and a lot of work is done through systems. But, it is people who run these systems. I am talking from India’s perspective now: we never imagined work-from-home was possible for us and yet we have done it.
     In the last five months companies have made major investments in technology, as have we, and now we can comfortably say we can work at least 60 percent from home, which is one of the biggest achievements for us.
     The Multinationals have always had their systems and Indian companies were getting there slowly. However, this COVID 19 situation has quickened our pace. All the stakeholders worked together as a team to achieve the mammoth task of transporting cargo despite the many issues and problems.
     Logistics companies have spent money in not only upgrading and ramping up their systems but also in making offices safe for their staff to work in. Many of us have spent more money on conveyance in bringing our staff to work with public transport not working or in limited capacity, that our P&L has become lopsided. The cost has hurt but we were there, we were making a difference, irrespective of the hardships.
     Personally, I have never felt more proud of my team, my vendors, my partners—the airlines, the customs or the custodian, the shipping lines and various other stakeholders because we all stood strong and persevered.
      We may not make profits in 2020 and our balance sheets may not look good or be in the red, but we survived and in turn helped others survive.
Buffy Sainte Marie Up Where We Belong


If You Missed Any Of The Previous 3 Issues Of FlyingTypers
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Vol. 19 No. 60
True Confessions of a Freight Forwarder
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Vol. 19 No. 61
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Vol. 19 No. 62
Trust and the Market
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The Indispensible Sherpas
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Harold Hagans Lit the Sky above Atlanta

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