Apron sheriffs

If it is critical for cargo loadings on passage flights, Lufthansa Cargo employees are right there to deal with the situation

Almost half of all Lufthansa Cargo shipments are flown in the bellies of passenger aircraft. An 18-person cargo team monitors loading and unloading activities right on the apron at Frankfurt Airport – and intervenes when a critical situation emerges.

The white Ford Fiesta boasts the personalised plate “FRACHT KOO” (short for “freight coordination” in German). And appropriately so. Manager Airport Relations Fraport Karlheinz Höngesberg and freight coordinator Steffen August conduct inspections on the apron. They barely cast a glance at the MD-11 freighters as they drive past them as their full concentration is on the Lufthansa Passage jets.

It’s shortly before 4 p.m. Höngesberg has a printout with the four critical flights in the next hour. For the manager, a flight is “critical” if there is a short turnaround time between landing and taking off again, meaning some of the freight may have to be left behind. All flights to CIS states are also considered “critical” as the customs authorities there are absolutely unforgiving of even the slightest discrepancy between the freight loaded and the accompanying documentation.

Steffen August parks his Fiesta at an Airbus A320 at 4:15 p.m. It will take off for St. Petersburg at 4:35 p.m. He climbs up the luggage conveyor belt, disappears into the aircraft’s tiny storage space, inspects the “on-board pouch” and is satisfied: “Everything’s OK.” It is essential that the apron coordinators inspect the onboard pouch containing all important cargo documents when flights are destined for CIS states. While customs authorities in other countries accept missing documents being emailed later, officials in Russia give a strict “Niet” – papers cannot be submitted subsequently. As a precaution, August then heads for position A 54, where flight LH1323 to Tunisia should have docked at 4:25 p.m. While the aircraft in question had not been highlighted in red (and therefore identified as critical) on his office computer, the trained eye of the apron coordinator couldn’t fail to spot that the “aircraft had a hell of a lot of cargo on board and was meant to fly on to Warsaw in around an hour with yet more cargo having been loaded.” August feared problems, especially since the Tunisian flight was expected to arrive in Frankfurt 25 minutes late.

At this point, August already considers which cargo might be left behind, just in case. Clear criteria are used to decide what has to be taken. This includes medications destined for Warsaw, diplomatic cargo and urgent express consignments. According to manager Höngesberg, “Some freight simply must go. Organ donations, valuable cargo and live animals can never be left behind.” That applies to Lufthansa Cargo in the case of both freighter flights and passenger connections. But Höngesberg doesn't have to intervene this time. Everything goes to plan and the aircraft takes off on time for Warsaw. There's hardly any time to catch one's breath, however, with the next order already awaiting the apron sheriff.