Air freight on the road

Trucks are often marginalised in an airline. Unfairly so. After all, Lufthansa Cargo couldn’t function without our Road Feeder Services (RFS)

It’s not the easiest place of work to reach, with five narrow steps leading vertically upwards. The world looks different from 1.5 metres above the road. The view ahead is magnificent. But the many signs of repair indicate that the right lane belongs to the trucks. The motorway is becoming ever more bumpy. “It’s never been this bad”, says Ulf Kuniss. He has 40 years of truck driving behind him. We are travelling from Frankfurt to Travemünde via Kassel, Hanover and Lübeck. “The roads are a lot better in the east”, says the 60-year-old: low-noise asphalt, three or four lanes, everything top-notch.

He loaded 4.5 tonnes of cargo in Frankfurt. He doesn’t know of what exactly. It’s much more important that he just gets moving. It’s 3 pm when he passes Gate 25 at Frankfurt Airport. The truck with flight number LH 7555 should actually have set off by 2:30 pm, but a technical problem delayed loading. Kuniss says that loading at the Lufthansa Cargo Terminal in Frankfurt is ideal. “You don’t have to pitch in or get your hands dirty. It’s all fully automatic.” No other airline offers this. The truck also boasts topnotch technology. Rollers embedded in the trailer floor slide the aircraft pallets into place. The tractor unit is one of the best on offer. Later on the A5, we can see how the 6-cylinder Mercedes Actros produces up to 450 hp and has a 13-speed gearbox. The times when trucks would almost come to a standstill going uphill are gone.

And, in any case, we are only carrying 4.5 tonnes of cargo. The truck could take up to 20. Most of the cargo – all from the US – consists of sports clothing from US manufacturer Nike, as we are told later by Arne Fischer, Lufthansa Station Manager in Helsinki, on checking the PC. Clothes are voluminous but not heavy. The rest of the consignment includes computers, mobile phones and oil filters for a Ford plant in St. Petersburg. Traditionally, much of the cargo delivered to Helsinki has been transported on to Russia according to Fischer. Fischer has been the Lufthansa Cargo Station Manager in Helsinki for twelve years.

This is irrelevant to Ulf Kuniss when we first come to a standstill at the Frankfurt Northwest junction. We’re only 35 minutes into our journey. The 60-year-old remains calm. “I can’t change anything. Why let my blood pressure get sky high over it?” Ten kilometres on and the Qualcomm beeps at the next hold-up at the Bad Homburg junction. The machine is the direct link to his employer. The dispatcher informs him that the A5 is closed and he should make a detour. The ferry at Travemünde won’t wait for Ulf Kuniss. If he’s not at the ferry port by 1 am, then he’ll have to wait 24 hours. “Miss”, he says to his colleague in Burbach, with all the composure of 40 years in the cab, “I’m aware of that. We’re stuck in a traffic jam.”

Kuniss has been on the payroll of “Georgi Transporte” for the past 30 years, the same length of time he’s been transporting air freight all over Europe. He has brought many an engine from Frankfurt to Amsterdam, London or Rome, transported Siegfried & Roy’s white tigers from FRA to Cologne-Brühl for a show and taken numerous Bentleys and Rolls-Royces from the UK to Frankfurt, from where they are flown by Lufthansa Cargo to their new owners in Dubai, Saudi Arabia or recently China. He’s probably done the Helsinki trip “scores of times already”. He knows everywhere that overtaking is forbidden, every service area and every speed camera. Parking and service areas are strategically important as he has to take a 45-minute break after every 4.5 hours behind the wheel by law. Ulf Kuniss, the gnarled Westphalian, is a classic solo driver. He says. But he has a lot to say. That he only does 120,000 kilometres a year now instead of 300,000 like before. That his Mercedes only consumes 25 to 30 litres of diesel per 100 kilometres nowadays in spite of the 450 hp engine. It used to be 40 or 50.

We reach the Skandinavienkai terminal in Travemünde shortly before midnight. Although there’s still an hour of loading left, we are one of the last to drive on to the ‘Finnmaid’. We’re directed to deck 5, one of twelve. My driver now has to really shunt and show what a good trucker he is. Kuniss easily guides his 40-tonne vehicle through the giant rear door, drives on 100 metres, does a U-turn and is directed to a spot in lane 3. When we arrive in Helsinki, he’ll be able to simply put his foot down and go.

We get the keys to our cabins at reception. After 603 kilometres and nine hours, it’s time for bed. You can hear the pounding of the ship’s engines. A car ferry is no cruise ship. We’re lucky. The weather is kind to us over the 28 hours to Helsinki. The sun shines and, most importantly, there are hardly any waves. Ulf Kuniss has been on board when conditions have been different. A truck driver on the Helsinki route has to be seaworthy. The ‘Finnmaid’ docks in Helsinki on the morning of the second day at around 8 am. The ship is just a sight in our rear-view mirror by 8:17 am. Eight minutes after this, Ulf Kuniss is handing the papers through the window at Customs and is being waved through. “That’s the big advantage of the EU”, he says, remembering other times: “Sometimes I’d be stuck here for almost two hours.” We arrive at the Lufthansa Cargo station shortly before 9. Ten hours later, Ulf Kuniss heads off on the home leg again with 5.3 tonnes of cargo.