We talk to Area Commercial Manager for South Asia, Ankush Chawla on how the South Asia hub adapted during the height of India’s COVID wave to succeed in pulling off a record year for export.

Let us first talk about you and your team. Can you tell us how long you’ve been in the role as IAG Cargo’s Commercial Manager for South Asia?

I have been the Area Commercial Manager for South Asia for the last three years. Prior to that I was the India Sales Manager for three years. South Asia is a complex market – we have seven stations in India, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Our experienced teams have an extremely in-depth knowledge of our customers and the way business functions in India – it’s this experience that has been pivotal to our success, delivering a strong performance in a very challenging year.

What was life like for you and your team before COVID?

Like many places, working from the office was the norm, and for colleagues and our customers – it was a place we enjoyed collaborating in. Meeting customers face-to-face was also the norm. For me, it involved working from one city and always knowing what was happening in the other cities, which was a lot more difficult because the use of technology, such as Teams, wasn’t to the level it is now.

And how did you re-adjust when COVID hit in 2020?

I think how we pivoted was a big success for us; how we all adjusted individually and as a team during COVID has been the backbone to that success. Pre-covid the teams used to function at station-level. So, for example, each team used to have a morning briefing in that station, such as Delhi, they would come together in their conference room to discuss recent activity and priorities. During COVID – like many people – we were working from home; That’s where we used technology extremely effectively to bring our people together virtually, whereever they were.

We changed the key communication of face-to-face to online, which allowed us to remain supporting our customers, and stay in touch with not just our local teams or stations, but to all of India. Virtual station level meetings were opened up to other teams in the region providing wider visibility for colleagues, creating team cohesiveness and togetherness.

We also applied this to the way we met customers. Pre-covid, our customers met frequently in person with their Account Manager, but rarely met with others in the business. But during COVID, we converted those calls into virtual meetings where the call included other IAG Cargo team members, such as me, or others when needed. When COVID started easing, we made those virtual customer meetings into a hybrid model to make the most of both face-to-face meetings and virtual meetings.

During February 2021, the UK paused passenger flights between London and India due to a surge in new cases. How did this impact work?

IAG Cargo had already set up a very robust passenger-to-cargo model, whereby the passenger aircrafts were being used for cargo. The day the information came that the UK Government had decided to put a temporary ban on passenger flights from India – IAG Cargo immediately stepped up to ensure we could continue to support our customers to transport vital goods across the world.

We created a schedule of cargo-only services, from Bangalore, Delhi, and Bombay – by doing that, we also maintained vital links for businesses in the south of India. Bangalore has a very good infrastructure, so we started doing regular trucking for cargo into Hyderabad and Chennai.

The strength of our network and resources meant at a country-level, 2021 was a record export year for India. Today, IAG Cargo is one of the largest air cargo carriers in the region.

What were the biggest challenges IAG Cargo faced in South Asia during 2021?

I would say the biggest challenge was maintaining a strong network and consistency throughout the closure of borders and lockdowns – with the capacity constraints our customers required our support more than ever. One of my team’s main strength is their market knowledge and that made a big difference. At the same time, it was also important for us to make sure we were keeping the team motivated during uncertain times.

And what about your successes?

Our main strength is our people. The success of 2021 would not have been possible with our people, and without the strong GSA support we have in India and Sri Lanka. The India GSA, TT Logistics the Sri Lanka GSA, Air Global have been working with us for many years. As a partnership, they have been extremely agile, adaptable, and supportive.

We carry a lot of vaccines into Africa, supporting the vaccination programmes for polio and measles. Through our speciality products we’ve been transporting a diverse mix of commodities, including fresh fruit and vegetables to Canada; delicious mangos to London; thousands of tonnes of auto parts to North America; and of course, during the seasonal celebrations of Diwali, Indian sweets across the globe.

For stations like Sri Lanka and the Maldives, their main commodity is garments and tyres. But as I said, it all comes back to the people. We are fortunate to have fantastic colleagues who made sure that our cargo-only schedules supported the programmes of our customers. That is the main success for me in 2021; the people who came together.

In May 2021, IAG Cargo partnered with its sister airline British Airways in flying two relief flights filled with over 27 tonnes of medical aid to Delhi. Can you talk us through what this involved? 

Our team in the UK did an amazing job pulling this together. My colleague Daniel Byrne, Regional Commercial Manager for UK & I and his team led the project from the UK, working with various organisations. At the time, there was an acute shortage of ventilators, so IAG Cargo and British Airways partnered with Khalsa Aid International, Oxfam, Christian Aid and LPSUK to send the much-needed ventilators and some necessary medication at that time. The aid was needed quickly – only air cargo made this possible.

Despite the pandemic, IAG Cargo managed a record shipment for its service out of Bangalore with 48,500kgs of cargo. How was this achieved?

This was a passenger freighter, and it had a diverse mix of commodities. They were all extremely heavy and dense, including auto parts, engineering goods and perishables. It’s these three major, diverse commodities that helped us achieve this tonnage. The success for us was the fine planning that was done by our team to maintain the balance of dense and non-dense loads. You needed an experienced operational team to be able to plan a flight like that. In a year of immense challenges, we still managed to create record uplift from Bangalore, Delhi, and Bombay, which required careful planning, monitoring and coordination of flights.

With IAG Cargo opening a new direct service from Madrid to Male in the summer of 2021, what are your hopes for 2022?

Right now, Male is a unique destination where British Airways and Iberia have both been flying to for some time. For me, it is extremely positive to show that South Asia is a very important market for both passengers and cargo, so this is exciting.

We’re also hoping that our customers continue to make use of our loyalty programme, Forward.Rewards as this has been an ongoing success for us. India is the only country where 100% of our customers are members of Forward.Rewards, so we are all excited to see how we can build on this for 2022.