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Wed 14 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Supersize ME

When a broken piece of equipment is potentially costing you thousands of dollars a day, you know who to call-the heavy-lift specialists.

When a broken piece of equipment is potentially costing you thousands of dollars a day, you know who to call-the heavy-lift specialists.

Whenever there is a requirement to ship bulky items and outsize freight in an emergency, clients generally turn to the heavy-lift providers of the air cargo world.

Given the vast range of items that these outfits are expected to transport, safely and at speed, it is impossible to rely on the bellyhold capacity of scheduled carriers.

We've been operating in this niche market for over 18 years and we’ve been seeing the increase in demand over this period.

For a variety of reasons, the Middle East, especially Dubai, has become a key hub for many of these firms. From the humanitarian perspective, the facilities available at Dubai enable international agencies to stockpile material, which can be transported almost at the drop of a hat to troublespots in nearby Asia and Africa.

The region is also the centrepiece of the world's crucial oil and gas industry, which often requires huge pieces of equipment shipped to hard-to-reach locations at speed.

And from a military perspective, companies based overseas often need to use Dubai-based charterers to resupply stocks for ongoing operations in the Middle East and Asia.

It is important to stress that it is not simply a question of transferring the item in question on board an aircraft before flying it to a particular destination and then releasing it to the shipper.

There are a host of variables that need to be considered, not least the requirement to keep load factors at a high level on all legs of the journey. There is firstly the question of chartering the correct aircraft to fit the item, and in some cases, the item itself will need to be partly dismantled in order to ensure that it can fit into the hold.

For hard-to-reach destinations, it is also crucial to ensure that the correct unloading equipment is available, and that speedy customs clearance can be provided to ensure that the shipper receives his goods on time.

In this sector, the details are of paramount importance. "We offer our clients a support package, which includes a dedicated team of aeronautical engineers working with experienced loadmasters," explains Henrik Ambak, vice president and head of ground services and commercial IT for Cargolux.

"This team often engages with forwarders and their clients very early in the transport planning process, for example by undertaking factory visits, which helps to optimise not only the packaging of the shipment but in some cases the final design of the shipment itself."

Such a forward-thinking approach ensures that there are no surprises when it comes to transferring the load onto the aircraft, which of course needs to be tightly secured in place to prevent shifting during transit.

Given the fact that some outsize pieces concentrate their weight on a specific area, heavy-lift companies also often require the assistance of specialists in the field of shoring - which is the science of distributing very heavy loads over larger areas.

There are a number of different aircraft available to charter outsize pieces, but the size and abilities of the Soviet-era freighters are clearly key. Their design means that they can easily land at remote landing fields and their on-board equipment makes them well-suited for use at airports that lack sophisticated ground-handling infrastructure. What these planes lack in terms of fuel efficiency and expense, they make up for through their exceptional capabilities with regard to outsize pieces.

"The kind of aircraft we use does depend, obviously, on the size and weight of the cargo," says Sujit Subramanian, Lufthansa Charter Cargo's general manager for the Middle East and Indian subcontinent.

"We will always go for the more efficient solution; so if it is able to be loaded in a 747 freighter we will use that, but if it's too big then we will go for the An-124 or even the An-225. If the shipment is just heavy but not outsize, we will use whatever aircraft makes sense - for example, the An-12 or the Il-76."

Cargolux is in the strong position of being able to use a nose-loading B747 jet.

"By operating the B747-400F, and soon also the B747-8F, we use aircraft with strong ‘generic'capabilities through, for example, the ability to lift more than 100 tonnes, and the nose door, which allows for the loading of pieces up to 50 metres in length," observes Ambak.

For Russian heavyweight Volga-Dnepr, the fact that it has its own dedicated freighter fleet means that it is easier to provide immediate assistance when required.

"Volga-Dnepr has the world's largest fleet of An-124-100, with 10 of this aircraft type," says Dennis Glisnoutza, Volga-Dnepr's group commercial director (charters).

"We also have eight Il-76 and two Il-76-TD-90VD, with three more on order. All these aircraft are ramp cargo planes, which are the perfect solution for the transportation of heavy and outsize cargo. We've now been operating in this niche market for over 18 years, and we've certainly been seeing the increase in demand in this segment over that period of time."

It's also clear that the company is not resting on its laurels and sees a great future for the heavy-lift sector. Not only does AirBridge Cargo, the daughter company of Volga-Dnepr, operate six B747 freighters, but the parent firm is also planning to add three Il-76-TD-9VD, plus five versions of the B747-8F (currently being designed), with five more of the latter on option.

The carrier is also participating in the relaunch of the An-124-100 and is considering the use of the Tu-204 on its AirBridge Cargo routes. "We see a future in modern cargo aircraft with low fuel consumption, which explains our plans to expand our fleet," outlines Glisnoutza.

As Subramanian points out, the transport of oversize freight is usually not a question of preference, more of need.

"Scheduled carriers usually fly two or three different types of aircraft between defined origins and destinations," he continues.

"Heavy and/or oversize cargo does not fit in with the aircraft types supplied by scheduled carriers and the airport of departure and arrival is also often not going to be in the schedule. With the charter service that companies such as ours provides, everything is made to measure, from the type of aircraft to the date of operation as well as the closest airport to the origin and destination of the shipment."However, for the larger companies with a worldwide footprint, the presence of a recognised international network can provide a useful resource.

"Operating a worldwide scheduled network often allows us to move special shipments on a ‘regular' basis, while our network remains flexible to add diversions to specific airports, as required," says Ambak. "And, of course, the classic charter solution is naturally available."

Lufthansa Cargo Charter is also in the healthy position of being able to draw on an existing network. "As part of the Lufthansa Cargo group, we do have some advantages over the competition," says Subramanian.

We predict quite strong demand for commercial activities from different government structures all over the world for peace-keeping and humanitarian operations.

"We can always combine our services with those of Lufthansa Cargo, Swiss World Cargo and Jade Cargo International to use the know-how and presence in the market of all these partners. That way, we can stay in close contact with the customer, not only through our own offices in Frankfurt, Dubai, Hong Kong and Chicago, but also through the approximately 300 worldwide offices of the Lufthansa Cargo Group partners."

In terms of specific projwects, regional outfit Mateen Express has also been making waves in the oversize project. The carrier, which operates scheduled services to Iraq, is especially proud of the recent shipment of a 25-tonne cementing unit to Irbil.

The product was originally earmarked to travel to Kurdistan by road, which would have taken three to four weeks, but a face-to-face meeting persuaded the shippers that the item could be modified and transported by air.

However, the options were fairly limited given the product's size. It could either be flown by Il-76, or even via the larger An-124, although positioning costs due to the lack of availability of this aircraft type might prove prohibitive.

"We looked at the unit and thought we might be able to remove the mechanical parts and lay them next to the main body for the flight, before reassembling them in Irbil," explains Majid Barzanji, director of regional operations for Mateen Express.

"Going for the Il-76 was the cheaper option by far, and eventually we managed to convince their engineers that this was the best logistics solution. We took a crew of 14 to help us; normally we would only take seven, but it turned out we needed every bit of experience. To aid the process further, we carried out pre-clearance of all import documentation, so the unit was out of the airport in just under an hour."

Airfreight media is often filled with stories of one-off flights involving unusual or specifically difficult shipments, which often use different logistical approaches.

A matter of pride between these carriers is the fact that they are able to freight any piece of equipment to the most inhospitable locations on the planet.

"Lufthansa Cargo Charter has recently done a project for a customer in Switzerland with three An-124 flights from Zürich to Singapore, another one for a customer in Germany with three flights to China," explains Subramanian.

"In addition we had An-124 flights between Scandinavia and India, North and South America, Italy and Africa as well as Africa and America. This shows that we will cover any origin and destination needed by the customer. There weren't any major difficulties as such, but as you can imagine, such specialised projects deserve a lot of planning and co-ordination, which our team managed with exceptional precision."

With the economic crisis certainly seeming to hit the rest of the aviation sector, is the charter segment likely to be affected as badly? "Not yet, but the upcoming year is going to be as challenging for us as it will be for any other global company, irrespective of the industry," says Subramanian.

"We plan to approach the year with caution, but at the same time we believe that it may be a good time to make inroads into new markets and also utilise the time to develop and expand our customer base in this region. We are ready to face the challenges and we will continue to focus on providing quality and reliable air cargo charter services to our customers."

Volga-Dnepr is planning a similarly cautious approach in the short term, as it has witnessed some decline in demand from commercial customers throughout 2008, although it reiterates that demand from the oil and gas, aerospace and heavy industry sectors still remains buoyant.

"We also actively participate in the Middle East, transporting industrial equipment to the region, as well as supporting material for the different contingents based there," explains Glisnoutza.

"For the long term, we see continuing support from these industries, plus the phasing out of our military ramp fleet. We also predict quite strong demand for commercial activities from different government structures all over the world for various peace-keeping and humanitarian operations."

Taking greater control of your supply chain, in order to provide an end-to-end solution, is clearly an issue that some carriers are considering. "We are planning to start a logistics division to develop ground logistics services for An-124 and Il-76 flights," adds Glisnoutza.

"Provisionally, these services will be provided for project cargo customers and if this initiative proves itself and other clients are interested, Volga-Dnepr plans to expand the service to ad hoc customers as well."

Not surprisingly, perhaps, heavy-lift operators have strong hopes for the future, and are seeking to look beyond the short-term difficulties affecting the globe. "Our company is quite serious in providing reliable and quality services to customers in this region," concludes Lufthansa Cargo's Subramanian.

"The demand for heavy and oversize cargo in the Middle East region is largely governed by the projects and industries that are more specific to this area. In general, the region has been rather significant in importing oversized machinery and equipment related to the oil and gas industries as well as other industries such as construction, airlines, shipping, power generation and so on.

Since heavy machinery and equipment also needs to be often transported back to Europe and US for repairs and maintenance purposes, it does provide significant scope for reliable heavy weight logistics providers like Lufthansa Cargo Charter to be active here."

Volga-Dnepr case study

In June 2008, Volga-Dnepr carried out the successful shipment of six Pilatus PC-21 aircraft from Switzerland to Australia. Preparation for this flight took place throughout the year, during which several cargo inspections were performed by the technical and load-planning department.

An electronic model of the lift was developed and trial loading of the model was also undertaken. When all loading issues had been resolved, the manufacturer produced special cradles in order to hang the Pilatus aircraft inside the An-124-100 at the concrete angle.

"The actual loading was performed without any problems at all, despite the fact that the clearance between the cargo and the cargo cabin was between 18 to 32mm," remarks Dennis Glisnoutza, Volga-Dnepr's group commercial director (charters).

"The success of this transportation was due to technical expertise and well-coordinated work between Volga-Dnepr and the customer."

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