HOW THE GSA FLIES THE FLAG
A General Sales Agent (GSA) can be considered one of the core building blocks of the modern global airfreight industry. While an airline may have a physical asset in the shape of a commercial aircraft that it offers on a scheduled or ad hoc basis, the ‘capacity’ it offers on its maindeck or in its belly space, is intangible.
Despite many airlines having global networks, there remain many cities, even countries, where an airline has not the facilities or personnel to function as a cargo sales force. This is where a sales representative for an airline in a specific country or region comes in to fly the flag.
Existing GSAs typically tender for the opportunity to represent the airline and be responsible for selling cargo space. In return, the airline will offer a margin on the cost of space sold by the GSA in its name. A GSA will typically sell products from multiple airlines.
The key to being a successful GSA (or a GSSA) is adding value. A GSSA is about so much more than just selling space. Airlines normally use a GSA in areas that it does not operate to or from, allowing them to have a sales presence in a country at lower cost than opening their own offices in the short term. It may also use their services because the GSA has historical ties with travel and cargo agents which will be too time-consuming for the airline to build itself.
All costs related to running the GSA’s business are the responsibility of the GSA including insurance, rent, general office expenses and any travel within the country or region needed to promote and sell the product.
At the simplest, in a market that has continued to evolve and
become more complex, airlines need partners with solid and welldeveloped local market knowledge that can be invaluable for the freight forwarder or shipper client.
The importance of the GSA to its airline principal is that industry observers have estimated that around one dollar in four of the air cargo industry’s $50 billion annual revenue is raised via outsourced sales operations. This means that GSAs account for some $12.5 billion of the industry’s annual income.
It is clear that the GSA is not simply a marketing arm of an airline. The GSA contributes to the airline’s sales and profitability by expanding successful operating networks. They help to cut operating costs to reduce prices and get involved in data capture. They can as well manage ground handling and surface distribution operations for the carrier and its freight clients. They have to be the ability to establish an airline’s market presence through wide network coverage that can generate even greater cargo sales revenue.
To stay ahead of the competition, the back office of the modern GSA has got to be lean and cost-efficient in order to make it competitive in pricing. At the core, it is the grade of digitalisation that matters now. The savvy operation will work with bots transferring e-mails in bookings and copying data from the GSA’s in-house IT system to the airline’s system. No more double entries. The modern GSA is working with windows 365, a cloud based system. Reservations software should be applied with brand-new and state-of-the-art. An e-booking platform should be instigated for bookings and ad hoc requests to enable the modern GSA to prosper in a modern manner.
Editor: James Graham
Associate Editor: Chris Lewis
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International Sales Director: Rosa Bellanca
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Directors: Norman Bamford • Dawn Jolley
GLOBAL GSA GROUP: SUCCESS ON A WORLD STAGE
In a world where customers can vote with their feet and cease to do business with companies that do not come up to standard, Global GSA Group is obviously doing something right for its airline customers.
Ismail Durmaz, CEO of Global GSA Group is proud that he and his team have accomplished the creation of a business that keeps is customers satisfied over the long-term. He says: “We are proud to say that thanks to our dedication, our first customer is also our oldest, since 1995. China Southern Airlines has thus pledged its confidence in us, testifying to the fact that Global GSA is a reliable partner. As for our most recent contract, it is with the Challenge Airlines. We have other exciting contracts in the pipeline that we will announce soon.
Global GSA Group was founded in 1995 in Amsterdam as the first independent cargo General Sales Agent (GSA). He recalls: “Pre-1995, GSA services had been offered for a long time in the Netherlands, but were mainly departments or subsidiaries with connection to the major forwarders or handling agents. As such, Global GSA Group was the first independent GSA in the country.
“In a market that has continued to evolve and become more complex, airlines need partners with solid local market knowledge. Global GSA Group provides that. In addition, not all carriers have local offices to call upon and even then, when a GSA is assigned to represent a carrier in a specific region, agents are not allowed to book directly with the carrier.
“Beyond our local market knowledge, we offer better customer service at a time when many companies are willing to outsource the sale of their capacity to better focus on other issues that the current economic situation brings.”
Staff are true assets
Like many employers in the aviation world, Durmaz and his HR team must find, attract and retain the staff that will keep the business going. He says: “Our main goal in this regard is to be an employer that respects the efforts of its employees. They are our true assets, and we keep investing in better working conditions in all ways. We strive to create a familiar environment where the team is more than colleagues to each other. This is done by organising regular team events and creating a joyful work environment. We grant them the freedom to enjoy their time and support them doing this. And we are proud to see that when the time comes to perform, they know their responsibilities and take initiatives. This makes it easier to attract
new personnel and maintain the current one.”
With a cost of living crisis in many markets, Russian sanctions, war in Ukraine and inflation in many parts of the world, is Global GSA Group seeing any drop in airfreight volumes being booked through its client airlines?
Durmaz considers: “There is definitely a drop in volumes, mainly over the last months. Many carriers have anticipated a market recovery and have implemented additional capacity. Furthermore, the financial success generated by the pandemic crisis has attracted new players to the market. Most of the leading sea freight operators have invested significantly in the air freight industry by establishing new freighter carriers with large fleets.
“All this new capacity, along with the continuing war and even Covid still affecting the main Asian countries, has resulted in the status quo. Not to forget that this has affected the sea freight market even more, resulting in extremely low container rates. This in turn affects the air cargo industry as potential cargo is shifting to sea freight options.
“There are some specific airlines that we seek to represent. Due to potential conflicts of interests, we are cautious when adding new carriers to our portfolio. Therefore, we carefully seek carriers with specific regional coverage that would be of great value, knowing that our expansion plans for 2023 are focused on the Americas and Southeast Asia.
Cutting-edge technology solutions
Durmaz concludes with his ideas on how his business can remain at the forefront of the GSA industry and continue its success on the world stage.
He says: “In these uncertain times, we remain convinced that developing cutting-edge technology solutions will have a direct impact on our efficiency and our ability to provide customers the best services. In that respect, we have chosen to boost our investments in digital transformation, as it will be essential to meet the challenges of the coming year.
“Indeed, digitisation allows not only greater transparency but also greater agility with faster responses in an increasingly volatile market. We are therefore continuing to invest in this area, in particular by taking advantage of the solutions developed by CargoTech.
“Whether it is for booking, capacity and revenue optimisation or pricing decisions, the solutions we use have already proven to be particularly insightful for us and our partners, enabling better performance. Recently, we have started with CargoTech to adapt the available tools to our specific needs.”
“In a market that has continued to evolve and become more complex, airlines need partners with solid local market knowledge”
ECS: PUTTING THE ‘SALES’ INTO GSA
The DNA of Paris-based ECS Group contains expansion in its molecules and cells. That’s the proud boast of Adrien Thominet. ECS Group executive chairman. He says: “Expanding our business opportunities is in the foundation of our DNA. In fact, we are always looking for opportunities, especially since as a GSSA (General Sales and Service Agent), we have the opportunity of attracting new customers thanks to our service portfolio. At a time when the market requires agility and cost control, our set of services, our abilities, have been developed specially to satisfy a wide range of needs. We will continue to adapt it according to market evolutions.”
The roots of ECS Group go back almost 40 years. In 1998, a range of major local GSAs around the world consolidated into the ECS brand. This is why some of its airline contracts date back to as early as 1985. These older relationships involve GSAs in Italy and Spain and they are still in place today. The Group’s latest contract it is with ITA Airways in Switzerland.
Currently, the Group represents hundreds of companies in over 50 countries. ECS Group can count on its 1,200+ employees around the world to offer high-quality service tailored to each of its partners, believes Thominet. The Group is committed to a completely new way of thinking about GSSA expertise through its “Augmented GSSA” strategy, which takes into account its four pillars: Commercial, Abilities, Technology and Sustainability.
Thominet explains the functions of a GSA or GSSA: “The GSA generally substitutes itself for the local airline organisation. We are fully dedicated to managing on behalf of the carrier, giving them peace of mind to deal with other strategic issues.
“Airlines typically consider working with a GSSA to rely on our much larger organisation in terms of sales resources, local operations oversight, network market penetration, and so on. So there is usually no bypass option. In addition to these core services, ECS Group has developed other solutions, through its abilities, that help airlines in other aspects. Indeed, most airlines prefer to outsource and focus on specific commercial actions rather than incur fixed costs on non-revenue generating functions such as administrative operations.”
Like industries in many parts of the world, the freight industry is not above issues regarding finding and recruiting staff. Thominet muses: “Finding staff is always a challenge in our industry, but we have the advantage of working in a community-based industry where we are close to our customers and suppliers. This allows us to quickly identify the best profiles.
“Retaining staff is a combination of the company’s philosophy and the business opportunities it can bring. We like to involve our staff in the growth of the company and getting new opportunities is also a key factor. For example, we favour internal promotion over external
“The roots of ECS Group go back almost 40 years. In 1998, a range of major local GSAs around the world consolidated into the ECS brand ”
recruitment, while providing team members with an environment where they can express their talent. They are at the heart of our know-how.”
Thominet is aware that the market has been dropping since November, mainly as a result of the economic situations in many parts of the global. Inflation has strongly affected consumer and business purchasing power worldwide, which has a direct impact on export orders and trade for ECS Group’s airlines.
He says: “We expected this configuration in view of the overall conditions, so this trend was widely anticipated. However, it should be noted that due to different geopolitical and macro-economic contexts, this trend depends on the markets. For example, we expect a rebound in Asia in the second half of the year.”
So what actually is the difference between a GSSA and a GSA? Do clients chose ECS Group because it is a GSSA?
Thominet notes: “Most GSAs now offer GSSA solutions; this part has become paramount and is now almost an expectation for carriers. At ECS Group, we wanted to go even further, so we developed all the additional abilities, going far beyond the GSSA concept and becoming an Augmented GSSA.
“Our clients come to us because they know we are a strategic partner they can rely on to develop their business objectives. They know that we are a GSSA that has the right tools for their needs because
we have developed them according to those needs and that ECS Group will continue to be agile, adapting to the current and the future market transformation.
“We hope to be present soon in Central America and Africa, two regions that show promise in terms of air cargo development. Another of our objectives is to intensify our presence in Asia. We expanded ECS Group’s footprint in this region last year with the opening of two global air cargo offices, one in Korea and one in Japan, and we are now targeting Northern Asia, especially China.”
Looking forward five years, how does Thominet see the ECS Group in 2028?
He considers: “We hope that by then we will have transformed the GSSA concept into a general logistics agent, covering several outsourcing solutions beyond the sales side.
“We also aim to be a type of GSSA that is fully compliant with sustainability rules, with a CSR aspect fully integrated in its processes, and that will have been able to accompany the digital transformation of our industry, offering cutting-edge innovative tools.
“In a nutshell, we hope to be one of the leaders of this transformation.”
EURO CARGO AVIATION: INVESTING IN CUSTOMER SERVICE
Independent Dutch GSA Euro Cargo Aviation (ECA) is quite explicit in why a freight forwarder or shipper should not try to cut out a GSA or GSSA and go directly to a carrier to book space. Quite simply, you get a better service from a GSA than you might get from a carrier.
Stuart Holland. vice-president of Euro Cargo Aviation, spells out an answer to the question: ‘if I want to ship some cargo, why shouldn’t I just go straight to the airline and cut you out?’ He says: “Interesting question - and the answer would be different depending on which carrier you are talking about. Most airline companies are focusing on core products - managing their suppliers and investing in infrastructure to create the best possible airport-to-airport product in their sector. We invest in customer service, market intelligence, front end support and destination support to ensure the customer gets through the network with clear updates, confirmed departures and support at the final destination.”
With six airlines in its portfolio, including Saudia Cargo and Norwegian Cargo, Holland is not standing still in his desire to increase that range. When asked if Euro Cargo Aviation is on the hunt to attract further carriers, he says: “Absolutely we are! However, strategically our first priority will always be our current airlines. The management team and our country directors are deeply rooted in this business and always available to assist any carrier looking to improve their revenue, load factors and yield.”
If the scientific maxim that the only constant is change, then Holland addresses the developing relationship and difference between what is a General Sales Agent (GSA) and a GSSA (General Sales & Service Agent). He says: “In this era we don’t necessarily define these terms - we focus on the needs of each carrier and their core customers and build products that add value to the customer experience which in turn will create customer loyalty.
“Within our portfolio we have many different carriers who have different offerings. It’s important to us that the customer who books with one of our customer airlines will return again and again! When we start a new airline relationship we have already created an understanding of their needs and equally importantly an assessment of their potential customer needs - that leads to a business plan that is individual to each carrier we
work with. The first steps are to ensure our commercial teams understand the core values and products of the carrier and this is followed with adding process and investment to create a product that creates customer loyalty.
“Some good examples would be the creation of our service centres at key locations; we invest heavily in people to manage the operation at origin and destination to ensure the carrier’s customer gets a seamless journey with realistic updates. There is a lot of investment in IT and AI in the GS(S)A world and we take our share in development of exceptional in house IT systems - but in the end it’s the people-to-people interaction that creates customer loyalty and it’s our people who make that difference!”
Making people proud
Hubert van der Laaken, Euro Cargo Aviation CEO, concurs with Holland as to the importance of attracting and retaining the right staff. He says: “When we are looking for staff for a new office or country we first check with our existing business partners that are active in that specific area and ask them for their recommendations. The air cargo community is relatively small and we always start talks with people that are recommended to us. ECA is active for 25 years now, people like our company as we are like a family and take care and help each other, this makes our people proud to be with us.”
Euro Cargo Aviation celebrates its 25th birthday in 2023 and has several employees who have been in the ECA family for 20 years or more, while three people are still there from the start when ECA was still a relatively small company.
Van der Laaken says: “Over the years we grew to become one of the major players in the GSSA landscape with 28 offices in 20 countries worldwide. ECA takes care of its employees, we have team players that work closely together and know that only together we are able to provide the best performance for our air airline partners.
“Our employees experience a professional and positive working environment, we work hard and are answering phone calls or emails after normal office hours to make a difference, which makes us unique. When we are successful together we make sure that our success is shared with all our employees in the family!” he concludes.
“With six airlines in its portfolio, including Saudia Cargo and Norwegian Cargo, Holland is not standing still in his desire to increase that range”
WHY THE GSA IS THE BEST SOLUTION
Ingo Zimmer, CEO of Frankfurt-based ATC Aviation Services, heads a very busy team. Busy, that is, in tendering for new airline customers. A recent signing was Silkway in Polen, while Avianca is coming back for territories of Switzerland and Germany as of May 1 and the GSA is in the process of signing a contract with TAP for Western USA. He says: “Our commercial department is very busy with many tenders, our pipeline is full!”
In the four-and-a-half decades since the launch of ATC, much has changed, while some things have remained that same, observes Zimmer.
He says: “What has remained and will always remain important is the existing customer relationship, market knowledge, excellent service, talented managers and customer service employees. In 1979 there were no PCs in use and nowadays digitalisation is the main change in the world. Now, you can’t run a cost-efficient organisation without a certain grade of digitalisation. You have also got to know what happens on the markets. Our group invested significant funds in the digital processes and data lakes that help us to take the right decisions for our airline customers.
“Air cargo in the 1970s and 1980s was a side product and not very professionally handled in some cases. Today more education and training, skills and qualified managers are needed. You will find many talents now in the air cargo departments of airlines, forwarders and GSSAs. Some leaders and CEOs of airlines in our time have been former air cargo executives.”
As to the perennial question as to whether a prospective shipper or forwarder should not bypass the GSA and go straight to the carrier, Zimmer is clear. He says: “If it makes economical sense of course, the airlines would entertain their own cargo set-ups. But the advantage of co-operating with a GSSA is well known in our industry.
“The amount of tenders is increasing from week to week. The GSA
is very often the best solution because GSSAs can use synergies while representing several airlines at the same time. GSSAs have special knowledge when it comes to local or regional sales. Huge GSSA organisations, like ours, can invest heavily in new technology, digitalisation and data. Some smaller airlines might not fund this investment in their air cargo divisions. The strongest argument to use a GSSA is still that airlines only pay commission for cargo revenues achieved and do not have fixed costs. In our days very often the GSSAs bears part of the risks by agreeing minimum guaranties with their airlines.”
“AI is a good tool for us helping to save costs. We don’t see it as a threat, but rather as an opportunity for us. We’re already using bots to transfer fax and email information into digital quotations or booking requests. We are also using AI for the full AWB data capture and to feed other airline systems. The double entry, which has been a problem of the past, is solved by using AI. We offer the customers also the option to do ebooking via our ATC or our airlines’ global website.
“Our management, as well as our customer service agents team, are recruited from former airlines and forwarding agents with a wide experience in our industry. We also train our own staff and offer apprenticeships. Middle management and country managers are handpicked by our top management.”
With a cost of living crisis in many markets, Russian sanctions, war in Ukraine and inflation in many parts of the world, is ATC seeing any drop in airfreight volumes being booked through it?
Zimmer says: “We can still fill the capacity market for our airline partners even as the market demand is getting lower. We had no endof-the-year peak during December 2022 and also January 2023 started very slowly. Nevertheless, the capacities of the airlines represented by us have been filled by our teams. Being a GSSA, the advantage we have is selling many different products, different airlines, different destinations; a one-stop shop, with highly motivated teams.”
“We can still fill the capacity market for our airline partners even as the market demand is getting lower”