March 15 marked the official opening of Air Inuit’s new 21,000-sqaure-foot warehouse at Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport in Dorval, ensuring goods flow consistently and efficiently between the North and South.
It is with great pride that Air Inuit President Pita Aatami highlighted the accomplishment of this project that will allow Nunavik and other served stations of Air Inuit’s network to obtain quality cargo services out of Montreal.
“Our Montreal cargo team, comprised of currently four Nunavik beneficiaries will certainly allow us to deliver quality service adapted to our needs,” Aatami said.
Having worked in the air cargo industry for over 25 years, Air Inuit’s Manager of Business Development, Brian Gibson, accompanied by the team, lead the project during the design of Air Inuit’s new cargo facility. Over the years he has seen several warehouse operations and types of shipments, all of which give him a solid understanding of what is required to make a cargo operation successful.
Air Inuit is different from other carriers, he explained. Yes, it transports people and cargo just like other airlines, but it is a lifeline to the people of Nunavik. Without air transportation, northern communities would not have access to essential food, supplies and medication on a daily basis. Air Inuit transports approximately 13.5 million kilograms of cargo annually throughout Nunavik, and Montreal handles several million kilograms of that. Over 65 per cent of what the airline transports is perishable items such as food and medication.
The importance of shipping cargo to these communities is clear and Air Inuit staff want to make sure that every shipment makes it to the customer as soon as possible.
“Every shipment is of value to someone regardless of what it is,” Gibson said.
The airline has always relied on other cargo handling companies to handle its business within their warehouse operations, but the expected service levels were often not met by these third parties.
The biggest challenge they faced over the years was that the quality of service from their vendors, Gibson explained. High turnover of labour made it difficult to maintain experienced individuals, let alone having these third parties understand Air Inuit realities was a daily challenge. Air Inuit felt consistency and stability in its operations could be improved.
Another challenge was the lack of storage space available for perishable goods. In the past, once the cold storage units were full, Air Inuit had to rent refrigerated trailers and place them at the dock doors which drivers would back up to. This caused other issues, like less doors for trucks, lineups, longer waiting times and frustrated clients. Ultimately, some service failures and unacceptable customer experiences forced the company to look for alternatives. For Air Inuit, quality of service was not something that it could comprise.
Gibson admitted that operating your own facility in a market like Montreal where there are many warehouse operators is never usually a first option. There is no cost saving to operate on your own rather than opting for a service provider, once you factor in the operating costs, rent, employees, equipment, and utilities. With the ongoing service-related issues over time, however, this project was made a priority.
Two years ago, as side project, Air Inuit started looking at the option of operating its own cargo warehouse facility. With only one warehouse left available at the airport, options were very limited for the airline to be able to make a change.
After drafting a mock-up drawing on paper of what was needed, Gibson said, a local racking company that specializes in warehouses was contacted to see what the potential space could become. The business case was reviewed by Air Inuit’s senior management group and was approved in the fall of 2019. Construction began in December 2019.
Today the warehouse boasts a 2,400-square-foot cooler/freezer unit on two levels and four loading docks, including a drive-up ramp. The cooler has a capacity to store 48 skids on the lower lever, as well as eight aircraft pallets on the upper level, or the equivalent of 16 aircraft pallets in total.
The freezer has a capacity of 36 skids on the lower section and six aircraft pallets on the second level, or 12 aircraft pallets in total. The freezer doors and rails are heated to help avoid ice buildup and when the doors are opened, the blowing warm air forces the cold air to stay in the freezer.
The 20-feet-high cooler and freezer bay doors are high-speed roll-up doors, designed to reduce loss of temperature when opening. The investment made by Air Inuit on these custom-made cold storage units was significant and are a vital part of its operation.
A specific design challenge was how to gain access to the second aircraft pallet on the top level once they are placed one in front of the other. Without any mechanical device to push it back or to bring it forward, the solution was an inclined pushback dolly system.
Using a forklift, the first aircraft pallet sits on a roller dolly inside the cooler or freezer racking. The second aircraft pallet pushes the first pallet back and then rests on the frame holding both aircraft pallets securely in place. When the front pallet is removed, while the forklift backs up, the back pallet slowly rolls forward until it meets the front stoppers.
“The benefit of using a second level is not only to optimize floor space, but also to maintain cold storage space once the aircraft pallets are inside the cooler. By placing them up on the second level, you can continue to receive more truckloads of perishables and store them in the lower levels,” Gibson said.
The logistics of moving from one warehouse to another is also not an easy feat when you operate daily flights. It was crucial that the new warehouse facilities were completed and operational before Air Inuit attempted the move. This meant computers, phones, office supplies and furniture, as well as the warehouse cooler and freezer construction all had to be in place and ready for use before the transfer could begin. To move from one facility to another without interfering with operations meant it had to happen during the evening and into the morning, before the aircrafts departed.
Staffing a new operation with experienced individuals can also be a challenge. But Air Inuit has an employment package that allowed for proper recruitment, Gibson said. There are now 20 full-time employees working at the cargo facility, which operates seven days a week.
Air Inuit is wholly-owned by the Inuit of Nunavik under the Makivik Corporation, therefore it was important that it recruit Inuit employees. The subsidiary is proud to say that it has successfully recruited three Inuit warehouse agents and one customer service agent.
The new Air Inuit warehouse is located at 800 Stuart Graham, Suite 110, in Dorval.It is open Monday to Friday: 8 am to 8 pm, and Saturday and Sunday: 8 am to 4 pm.