Emirates SkyCargo: coronavirus outbreak the biggest challenge faced by air cargo

By Damian Brett

Nabil Sultan, Emirates Divisional Senior Vice President Cargo

The current coronavirus outbreak is the biggest crisis ever faced by the air cargo industry, according to Nabil Sultan, divisional senior vice president of Emirates SkyCargo.

Speaking to Air Cargo News, Sultan said the outbreak had been more of challenge than all the previous crisis, such as the Icelandic volcano eruption, US container port strikes and global financial crisis, combined.

And he expected the ripple effect of the outbreak to be felt for years to come.

“This crisis alone, stands for everything and anything that we have ever faced in the past,” he said.

“The way the economy is going to be impacted post Covid-19 is of course something that remains to be seen, but it is going to be a difficult and challenging year ahead for a lot of businesses, whether small or large.

“And then you have to wonder what sort of impact it will have on consumer confidence and purchasing power – the ability to go out there and buy and go on holidays and spend money. This will definitely have a much larger impact in the long term.”

He said it may not be until 2023 that growth really begins to once again pick up.

Sultan said that when Emirates began suspending flights at the start of March, the cargo division quickly established a new network of core origins and destinations that could be catered for using its freighters and the cargo space in some passenger aircraft.

Sultan said: “We immediately embarked on a plan and by mid-March – after just two weeks – we were able to put together a network of destinations that we could start with immediately.

“We had to put this whole thing together fairly quickly and, as you can imagine, the demand was quite strong and we needed to sustain the whole supply chain.

“We started from there and today we have almost 60 cargo destinations that we operate to as Emirates using 50 aircraft — passenger B777-300ERs, plus our 12 B777F freighters. 

“The objective was to ensure that we deploy substantial capacity in the key production markets, whether that be food or medicine, and then once that tonnage is in Dubai we are able to disseminate and distribute it across the world.”

The cargo business also implemented other changes. In order to create operational and cost efficiencies it switched from its dual-hub strategy to using only Dubai International (DXB) – previously freighter aircraft operated out of Dubai World Central and its passenger aircraft from DXB.

Sultan said that this move has the potential to create savings of as much as AED160m ($43m) per year.

Highlighting its efforts at keeping its staff and customers safe, the airline has set up thermal body temperature scanners at key locations at its hub in Dubai, as well as four sanitisation tunnels for employees and visitors to go through prior to entering the Emirates SkyCentral cargo terminal.

In addition, it is continuously disinfecting its cargo terminal, including the cargo handling and storage areas, customer reception areas and cargo drop-off and pick-up areas.

The carrier also disinfects its aircraft cargo holds and equipment including ULDs on a regular basis.

Looking to the medium-term future Sultan expects to see a gradual change in the market, with cargo capacity remaining tight.

“We are looking into our medium- and long-term plans in terms of how the market will react,” he said. “But I think looking at everything right now, there will probably be a gradual build-up of production as countries go back to some form of normality.

“The biggest factor of course is that passenger demand will not pick up as fast as one would perhaps think.

“It isn’t just a question of putting back the entire fleet and getting the passengers to come back.

“You have to consider the psychological impact, whether people will go on holiday. It is something that needs to be well thought out.

“The passenger demand will grow very slowly over maybe six months to a year and during that period cargo will be at the centre of movement in terms of making sure that supply continues to flow around the world.

“Whether that will be a sustainable demand beyond six months we don’t know.

“We shouldn’t forget that the world economy is probably expected to go south. That will probably have some impact on future production and probably have an impact on airfreight transportation and transportation globally in general, so that is something that one needs to be mindful of.

“But for the coming six months, I anticipate the demand will continue to be fairly strong throughout this whole epidemic.”

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