Dubai Airshow

Cargo Keeps Emirates 777s Airborne for Much of Pandemic

 - November 13, 2021, 4:00 AM
Ground crews load an Emirates Boeing 777F at Dubai South. (Photo: Emirates)

With virtually its entire fleet of Boeing 777s jets back in service, Emirates Airline (Stand 1100) has gained pole position among its peers, proving the effectiveness of its agile approach to logistics as the recovery from the pandemic gains momentum.

The Dubai-based airline operated to about 140 freight destinations by the end of September, its top cargo official told AIN. Based on October 14 industry estimates, Emirates had 140 Boeing 777s in service, with four parked, as well as 43 A380s in operation, with 74 parked, and a final superjumbo due for delivery in November.

In mid-October, Emirates operated 10 SkyCargo Boeing 777Fs, 16 Boeing 777-300ER "mini freighters"—passenger aircraft with economy class seats removed—and another 10- to 15 aircraft with seats in place, acting as cargo-only flights. In December, it returned one freighter to the lessor.

“We've been using several passenger aircraft as cargo-only, which has compensated—or far more than compensated—for lost freighter capacity,” Nabil Sultan, Emirates divisional senior vice-president of cargo, told AIN in a pre-show interview. 

A Time Like No Other

Sultan called the onset of Covid-19 a time like no other. “It was extremely challenging and interesting. Back in March 2020, when the airline had to suspend operations—as did every other airline, especially from a passenger perspective—you quickly realized that many countries’ dependence on moving essential goods and commodities—pharmaceuticals, food items, and perishables—was so paramount, that it was important to ensure we continued to provide badly needed capacity into Dubai and beyond.”

In March 2020, Kuwait became Emirates’ first passenger-as-cargo 777 destination. It also flew A380s on charter to move rubber and PPE from Thailand to the U.S., with passenger seats in place. “We continued to add destinations; it was almost planning and executing at the same time, to ensure at least the capacity was there,” he said.

Emirates grew its cargo network to almost 100 destinations by June 2020, using 90 passenger aircraft, in addition to its dedicated freighters. “Now we are operating to about 140 cargo destinations, covering a lot of ground with a large amount of capacity,” Sultan said.

Emirates can carry about 70 tons of cargo on a single passenger aircraft. “A normal freighter today can accommodate about 100 tons, so 75 percent of capacity is available, on just one passenger aircraft,” he said. “The 777-300ER is just such an incredible aircraft. It has massive capacity. Eventually, once these aircraft go back to passenger [use], we still plan to have belly capacity available. What we did in March to December 2020 was a major shift of that capacity to cargo.”

Gradual Return to Pax Flying

From December onward, as demand picked up, he started to release aircraft back to passenger flights. “That's the transition for which we are planning,” noted Sultan. “The passenger market continues to remain volatile. Where you had the summer break when things slowed down, now we see demand picking up, because of the Expo in Dubai and various other activities. We're shifting capacity based on demand between cargo and passenger. We will probably continue to do that and until the end of this year.”

Sultan said demand for commodities worldwide was booming, while production continued to accelerate in Europe, the U.S., the Middle East, and Africa.

“Obviously, we were still sitting at home, but e-commerce demand continued to pick up,” he explained. “We've seen huge transformation and demand with e-commerce globally: all of it has to be more or less air-freighted because of the time essence. We've also seen massive demand for PPE and various other medical equipment, which had to be transported very quickly into certain countries.”

Items traditionally moved by sea, such as hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and other medical necessities, instead went by air during the pandemic. The fact that many hospitals appeared overnight to accommodate Covid-19 cases meant continued air-freight demand—and by November, the introduction of vaccines brought a completely different level of urgency.

In October 2020, Emirates added a 4,000-square-meter dedicated facility at its SkyCentral DWC cargo terminal in Dubai South to serve as an anchor hub for cold-chain storage and distribution of the vaccine.

“Working with agencies like UNICEF and the World Health Organization, we provided vaccines to third-world countries,” he said. “We played a major role in getting them into Africa, the Middle East, and India because we realized early on these countries lacked the infrastructure to handle large quantities due to the requirement for storage at very low temperatures.”

Dubai has also pioneered so-called sea-air cargo shipment. Post-pandemic, sea-freight has soared: it now costs around $20,000 to move a 40-foot container between China and Europe or the U.S., or six times more than in 2019. That can take 35 to 40 days. “With sea-air, we are able to move products from A to B within 12 to 15 days, with much better pricing than air freight. Geographically, it just makes perfect sense,” he said.

Sultan sees the supply chain and logistics outlook remaining strong. “Inflation could impact consumer confidence, and purchasing power, but there's huge pent-up demand for commodities around the world,” he said. “As passenger demand comes back, we obviously need to start increasing frequencies, whether to secondary or primary cities. There will always be destinations on long-haul for us to operate to, especially as demand continues to ramp up. North and South America are a huge opportunity. We see plenty of opportunity as we move forward.”