Freightways boss talks quake challenges and artificial intelligence

A Freightways Boeing 737 freighter service plane was welcomed to Palmerston North Airport last year.
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A Freightways Boeing 737 freighter service plane was welcomed to Palmerston North Airport last year.

For a company which transports freight, some of it time-sensitive, lots of it between the North and South Islands, last November's earthquake in Kaikoura was a major curveball.

Kick in the fact it was a peak month for sending packages, being weeks away from Christmas, and that trucks were on the road the Monday morning the quake hit.

Now consider the expectation State Highway 1 would likely be closed for at least another year.

Freightways managing director Dean Bracewell says the November earthquake in Kaikoura was a major issue for the company.
LAWRENCE SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

Freightways managing director Dean Bracewell says the November earthquake in Kaikoura was a major issue for the company.

"The earthquake was a major event, obviously for New Zealand, and as a transport operator moving interisland freight between the islands, and time sensitive freight, it was a particularly major issue," Freightways managing director Dean Bracewell said.

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"Whilst we are challenged every night on the road and every day with what the roads are coping with, the disruption is actually quite minimal."

The company, which formed as Associated Couriers in 1964 with just six Morris vehicles, last month reported an after-tax profit of $29.5 million for the six months to December 31.

This was up about 6 per cent, and revenue was also up a tick above that, driven by what Bracewell said was sound growth in its three key business divisions: express package, business mail, and information management.

All of this as well, despite the significant impact of the earthquake on its inter-island and intra-South Island services.

Bracewell said this was down to a lot of resource being put in place soon after the quake.

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"When we heard what had happened in the early hours of Monday morning, the first we do is confirm that all our people are safe, and we did have trucks on the road heading up the coast at that time but luckily they were still south of the event.

"So having confirmed that all people are safe, we then put together our contingency plans, we execute them and then you refine them.

"Putting together the contingencies involved working with our independent contractors who run our linehaul for us, working with suppliers to provide us with leased trucks because we need to put on a number of extra trucks, and then finding drivers through our network of drivers around the country as well."

Bracewell said the company already had plans because weather could disrupt the business on a regular basis.

Freightways expected the main road would still be closed for at least another 12 months.

"The important thing is having the right people in the right place because ultimately we've got an important job to do and we want to have minimal disruption for customers."

Freightways was investing $11m in a new facility in Christchurch which would automatically sort and scan parcels and have airside access to its Boeing 737 aircraft, which the company upgraded to for extra capacity.

The investment was a hint towards Bracewell's belief artificial intelligence would "certainly" be at play in the transportation industry in the coming years.

This could come in the form of unmanned aircraft doing deliveries, or unmanned vehicles on the road.

"These aren't likely in the near-term or even medium-term to be operating everywhere, delivering every single package, but they will be in use in some form or other.

"Technology and innovation will continue to play a major part within our industry, no doubt about it."

Growth in freight was coming from both business-to-business and business-to-consumer activity, and driven by overall perceptions of the economy.

Online shopping was driving volume as well.

"We believe the volumes we've got will only continue to grow in the foreseeable future.

"We can't avoid any global impact that might happen elsewhere but through the eyes of ours businesses and our customers we're positive about the outlook for our business."

 - Stuff

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