SAL: Saudi Arabia's top logistics arm for intricate COVID vaccine distribution and future global logistics hub plans

Published: Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic brought the global economy to the brink of collapse, rendered more than half a billion people jobless, tragically killed more than 1.6 million people and infected over 71 million across the world.

The road to recovery remains difficult despite the relatively quick discovery of vaccines to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

And certain industries like air cargo, logistics and their supply-chains are crucial to stop the pandemic by safely transporting the vaccines and keeping the global economy rolling with the seamless flow of medical supplies and other essential goods for personal consumption, exports, re-exports or imports.

In Saudi Arabia, home to approximately over 35 million people, including the estimated 10 million expats it hosts from different countries, Saudi Arabian Logistics Company (SAL), the long-enduring cargo ground-handling and logistics provider of the national carrier since the country’s aviation industry was formally established 75 years ago, was quickly put to the test during the pandemic.

Overcoming the pandemic challenges

Saudi Arabian Logistics Company (SAL) quickly showed its agility, flexibility and resilience to adopt to the new normal despite coming to terms to its new independent status only in January of 2020.

The pandemic has kept the air cargo and logistics industry busier than usual. The major challenge was how to keep their operations running while the whole world was in lockdown, gripped by an invisible virus that knocked down all business activities.

SAL CEO Omar Hariri, concurrently the CEO of Saudia Cargo, explained their cargo operations wasn’t suspended despite the threat of the pandemic.

In fact, the company even resorted to operating passenger planes as freighters to meet the demand in hauling vital medical cargo and supplies. Between March to June alone more than 75,000 tons of cargo were hauled to the Kingdom, carried through 1,500 flights operated during the period.

On the ground, it was SAL that carefully handled all the shipments, safely carrying them to warehouses or cold storage facilities en route to their final destinations, including facilitating their quick Customs clearances.

Shipments from different KSA businesses bound to different countries were also handled by SAL on the ground until they are boarded to the aircraft.

“Our operational team with back-office support rose to the task and made it possible to handle the heavy incoming movement of pharmaceuticals, perishables, foodstuff, PPE and other medical supplies along with e-Commerce shipments,” the SAL CEO proudly shared and noted new safety and health protocols were quickly put in place to protect their team on the ground as well as the shipments they were handling.

He said the heavy influx in the movement of cargo shipments was managed by splitting the load into different stations in the country and supporting customers by way of a strong feeder road connection, as necessary.

“It is important to mention that the support we received from other stakeholders, especially from the Saudi Customs, the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA), the Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA) and the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) was tremendous to ensure that we maintain the supply chain of urgent supplies for our people,” said Hariri.

The result: SAL remarkably delivered its tasks through adoption of innovative industry solutions which include having cool dollies for the airside movement; thermal blankets, dry ice capabilities and feeder road services for general and refrigerated shipments along with the launching of new facilities for handling e-Commerce and pharmacy in the main airports of the country that helped maintain the supply chain cycle.

Ready for COVID vaccine distribution

Approximately 19 billion doses of COVID vaccines are needed to immunize up to 70 percent of the world’s 7.8 billion people against the invisible virus.

This delicate historic life-saving mission again requires cooperation from various governments, regulatory agencies and industries like the healthcare, pharmaceuticals, logistics, air cargo and their supply-chains, among others.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 290 airlines worldwide, said the industry expects the COVID vaccines to be the largest airlift of a single commodity in its history. To deliver just a single dose of the vaccines to the entire planet would require at least 8,000 B-747 aircraft or jumbo jets.

IATA noted land transport will help, especially in developed economies with local manufacturing capacity. But vaccines cannot be delivered globally without the significant use of air cargo and its supply-chains on the ground like SAL.

“Even if we assume that half the needed vaccines can be transported by land, the air cargo industry will still face its largest single transport challenge ever. In planning their vaccine programs, particularly in the developing world, governments must take very careful consideration of the limited air cargo capacity that is available at the moment. If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

Forging alliances with key government agencies in Saudi Arabia along with making careful logistics planning, SAL says it is prepared to take on its new challenge during this pandemic—handle COVID vaccines for distribution in the Kingdom.

SAL had since tied up with the Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA) and Saudi Customs for these delicate cargo’s successful transport from the plane to their final destinations.

“This is the biggest task yet for SAL in its barely a year of operation as an independent entity. SAL has all the necessary mechanisms in place for the safe transport of the vaccines upon delivery at the airport, to the storage facilities, until they reach their final destinations within Saudi Arabia,” said Hariri, emphasizing that the company is looking “at the possibility of transporting shipments from the aircraft directly to dedicated transport vehicles with capability of replenishing dry ice to avoid breaking the cold chain.”

“The whole transportation will be monitored and escorted by trained personnel to ensure that the integrity of the shipment remain intact,” added Hariri who was also recently voted to serve as the Chairman of the Executive Board of SkyTeam Cargo, the biggest global alliance of air cargo carriers.

Hariri said SAL, noting “the considerable growth of cold chain products into the kingdom,” has “decided to invest in state-of-the-art facility that will be three times bigger than its current facility.”

This facility, he said, has a dedicated team responsible for managing the cold chain shipments from arrival until delivery in the declared temperature range.

“The facility is equipped with high-tech temperature and humidity monitoring system that record the temperature every five minutes and alerts in case of deviations,” Hariri explained.

It will also have a sophisticated laboratory for SFDA and the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture (MEWA) to expedite and enhance the clearance process. Likewise, the facility will have two dedicated screening machines for Customs, ensuring a flawless procedure while the tasks are being done in the required temperature range.

“We have invested in doubling our facilities’ capacity for the storage, increasing it to over 7,000 sqm to handle and accommodate cold chain shipments with temperature range varying from 15°C to 25°C, 2°C to 8°C and frozen at -10°C to -20°C with high-tech temperature and humidity monitoring system at the main airports in Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam,” Hariri said.

New Facilities unveiled

Last month, SAL unveiled its new facilities for pharmaceuticals and perishables located at Riyadh’s Cargo Village inside the King Khalid International Airport.

The launch of the Riyadh cold storage facilities comes at a historic moment that coincides with the much-anticipated global distribution of COVID vaccines.

His Excellency the Saudi Minister of Transport Eng. Saleh bin Nasser Al-Jasser led the inauguration of the facilities with the Ministry assuring the country’s readiness in terms of infrastructure, transportation and people, to handle the historic life-saving mission of distributing the COVID vaccines.

“The new facilities will handle refrigerated and pharmaceutical cargoes and have an area of 5,000 square meters and four main sections: Delivery, Inspection, Temperature-Controlled Storage and Cargo Sorting. They can handle 100 tons a day and have 13 refrigerated storages for perishables and pharmaceutical cargoes with different temperatures. These facilities meet modern global standards and also the needs of suppliers,” Hariri explained.

The new facilities have four docks for loading refrigerated containers. Its warehouses have different temperatures ranging from -20°C to 25°C to suit the nature and type of cargo to be stored.

The opening of the facilities ushers in a new and advanced phase for handling sensitive cargoes including foodstuffs that require special care. Within the facilities are divisions run by SFDA and the Saudi Customs to inspect and expedite the cargo handling process to avoid an unbreakable cool chain.

Combined, the new pharmaceuticals and perishable facilities can adequately handle up to 365,000 tons of cargo a year.

They also have a 650 sqm temperature control breakdown area as well as space for shipping refrigerated containers enough for 20 active containers. It is also equipped with a thermal isolation area.

Beyond Saudi’s capital Riyadh, SAL also has facilities in Dammam, the city where Saudi Aramco is based and Jeddah, the country’s business capital. All three facilities are fit for high volumes of general cargo and temperature-sensitive shipments.

Building a robust workforce

Continuing to build on the strength of its skilled workforce, SAL regularly conducts and facilitates training for its people on the ground like the ramp service agents and ground handlers as well as those involved in other operations—sales, accounting, warehouse & inventory, compliance and safety, administration, customer service, among others.

“We provide the required training in the hands of specialized, qualified and certified trainers for ground operations that is appropriate for every job and task performed by ground handling personnel,” said Hariri.

Training solutions were done according to appropriate methods, whether through virtual classes or training rooms and on-the-job training.

This, alongside a specialized department for writing, developing and updating training curricula under the supervision of specialists to keep the pace with developments in the field of ground-handling, according to the requirements of GACA and IATA.

The courses are segregated into two main courses – mandatory, which covers safety management systems, aviation security, health and safety as well as fire prevention and emergency response procedures among others; and functional, which, among others, include air cargo principles, handling of and regulating dangerous goods, transporting live animals, and handling special cargoes and sensitive pharmaceuticals.

Investing on new technologies & the future

Recognizing the importance of digitalization in today’s digital world, SAL continues to upgrade and invest on tech-driven systems, equipment and facilities that will enhance and make its services more efficient.

It is also actively digitalizing and automating its services, including availing different means of data capturing to improve productivity and on-time performance-based on real time data visibility and transparency.

Likewise, it is following an E-business approach to integrate with all stakeholders and go paperless with all its internal and external transactions. It has also invested on cybersecurity technologies to assure a safe and secure workplace for all stakeholders.

“Businesswise—SAL is focusing on customer centricity by investing in latest technologies to enhance and improve customers relation. In addition, SAL invested in its infrastructure to automate and digitize its services and avail different means of data capturing in order to improve productivity and on time performance based real time data visibility and transparency,” the SAL CEO explained.

“Environmentally—SAL is following an E-business approach to integrate with all stakeholders and go paperless with all its internal and external transactions. E-freight, E-AWB, E-CSD and E-DG are some of the prime electronic documents SAL is steadily progressing to fully enable,” he added.

Under Saudi Vision 2030, Saudi is reinventing its oil-based economy into diversified markets, mainly consisting of tourism, healthcare, transportation, education, among other industries.

Part of this long-term goal is to develop Saudi as a global logistics hub which gave rise to the Saudi Logistics Hub government initiative seeking to position the country as a strategic gateway at the crossroads of three continents—Asia, Africa and Europe.

As the biggest economy in the Middle East, Saudi commands more than 50% of the logistics market share in the GCC region. In 2019, the country saw 47% increase in the number of new foreign transport and logistics companies, according to the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority.

This year, Saudi was ranked as having one of the world’s fastest-growing logistics sector by the World Bank Group’s Doing Business 2020 report, jumping 30 positions to 62nd place.

“The logistics sector is undoubtedly a vital component in the country’s quest to diversify its economy in a changing world. We have put in place all the necessary measures to make sure SAL contributes to the seamless flow of goods that come in and out of Saudi’s main entry points to facilitate a healthy global trade for many years to come,” concluded Hariri.