August 14, 2018

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In Conversation with Nabil Sultan, Emirates SkyCargo

Emirates SkyCargo
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Emirates is no amateur when it comes to the aviation industry. With more than three decades of stronghold in the region, the airline is now the largest in the Middle East, catering to 154 airports in 82 countries from its hub in Dubai. In the 2016-2017 period alone, Emirates saw 56.1 million passengers and carried 2.6 million tonnes of cargo worldwide – these are no small numbers.

Emirates SkyCargo was launched the same year as the commercial airline (1985), and is now the largest international airline cargo operator in the world. It boasts a route network spanning over 150 destinations, including 15 cargo-only destinations – Atlanta, Basel, Ciudad del Este, Columbus, Djibouti, Eldoret, Erbil, Liege, Lilongwe, Mexico City, Ouagadougou, Phnom Penh, Quito, Viracopos, and Zaragoza. SkyCargo operates a young and modern fleet of 255 aircrafts, including 13 Boeing 777Fs. The Boeing 777 freighter aircraft has the capacity to carry over 100 tonnes of cargo at any given point of time. The aircraft is one of the most modern, technologically advanced freighters available, and has the lowest fuel burn of any comparable sized aircraft.

Route network

With an extensive network reaching out to even remote parts of the world, SkyCargo has seen business pick up in many important markets, despite economic downturns.

Nabil Sultan, divisional senior vice-president, cargo, at Emirates SkyCargo, remarks: “We’ve seen demand pick up out of Hong Kong and other parts of China. We had to add additional capacity in Hong Kong, going from 24 to 26 freighters per week, in addition to our 28 passenger flights out of Hong Kong. In other parts of China, we’re operating almost 10 freighters per week, between Shanghai and Guangzhou.

“We’ve also seen some demand emerging from Europe in the last four to six months. We’ve added some capacity in Amsterdam and Frankfurt, following a surge in demand. In the US, we’ve aligned more capacity in Chicago. We also established a new route in the US late last year in Fort Lauderdale (Florida). This shows that we’ve ramped up fleet capacity in some of the key production markets to ensure that we’re capable of meeting their demand.”

He further continues: “In markets like Africa, where we almost operate, as though a national carrier, we have several flights, at high frequencies, to key metropolitan and secondary cities. This gives us the capability of moving consistent, regular volume into these markets. With our solid product and reach into key consumer markets like Middle East, Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent, it has given us a lot of flexibility. We are able to penetrate these markets, delivering regular, consistent capacity, undistracted. That has given us an edge in terms of securing volumes on a consistent basis.

“We’ve also started operations in Vietnam, since we saw a shift in some of the manufacturing from China into Vietnam. We’ve seen some increase in demand from places like Bangladesh, where we’re operating additional flights. We’re also studying new markets, for instance in South America, where we’ve been launching flights into Quito, Bogota, and various other destinations. But it is still under study.”

In June 2017, Emirates SkyCargo announced the beginning of weekly freighter flights to Luxembourg, as part of an operational partnership with the Luxembourg-based Cargolux Airlines. Both carriers will use each other’s networks, offering customers, of both carriers, an enhanced global reach for transporting cargo from key production markets to consumer markets. Cargolux will have access to Emirates SkyCargo’s high frequency distribution network through the belly-hold of its passenger flights, whilst Emirates will have access to the main deck 747 capacity on Cargolux’s network.

Sultan comments on the partnership: “The cooperation that we have with Cargolux is quite unique in the industry. Probably because this is the first partnership where you have an airline that is a specialised freighter operator, pairing up with a traditional airline that has a daily capacity. In this cooperation, there is a clear objective and benefit for both organisations. As we (Emirates) continue to expand our passenger belly, we will always require additional freighter capacity. And they (Cargolux) are fully fledged in freighter capacity. This is a great match. We’ve embarked on this partnership, whereby they position one aircraft for us at Dubai World Central (DWC), for our utilisation. And we use it according to our schedule, into our market, where we bring in cargo and then feed it into our passenger belly.

“And we do the same thing for them. We bring in cargo on our passenger belly, and feed it to their freighter. To make sure this cooperation becomes meaningful, we had to start operating into their hub, and they had to start operating into our hub. Which is why the Dubai – Luxembourg route emerged.”

Dual hubs

Emirates SkyCargo operates state-of-the-art cargo facilities at its dual hub locations in Dubai International Airport (DXB) and DWC. Emirates SkyCentral at DXB sprawls over 43,600 sqm, with an annual capacity of 1.2 million tonnes. It has an extensive handling area, comprising a five-storey automatic storage and retrieval system (ASRS) with more than 10,000 loose cargo storage locations, and a sizeable seven-storey pallet container handling system (PCHS) for 2,500 unit load devices (ULDs), 220 of which are dedicated positions for temperature-controlled ULDs.

On the other hand, Emirates SkyCentral at DWC, the carrier’s dedicated freighter terminal, began operations in May 2014, and is equipped to handle 700,000 tonnes of cargo per annum. It was developed and built to meet the future growth requirements of Emirates SkyCargo, featuring an extensive cool chain facility.

With belly hold cargo being managed at its Cargo Mega Terminal at DXB, and freighter cargo at DWC, cargo is moved 24/7 by truck between the two airports via a bonded virtual corridor. SkyCargo has 47 trucks that link the virtual corridor between the two airports, with each truck being equipped with satellite tracking to ensure the safety and security of cargo and staff. The movement of cargo between the two airports is achieved seamlessly, with a transit time of just five hours between the arrival of goods to their departure, from freighter to belly hold and vice versa.

Specific Verticals

SkyCargo is known for its specialist approach to freight handling. The have utilised their expertise to expand services into various industry verticals, from pharmaceuticals to floriculture, to automobiles, oil and gas industries, and even animals—be it pets or an entire zoo.

Sultan states: “For us, it is no longer the case where we simply have to move cargo from point A to B. Now, we must focus on understanding specific industry requirements to be able to move specialised products. For example, oil and gas companies often require oddly-sized, enormous equipment, where even a single item can easily weigh 15-20 tonnes. You must understand the industry to be able to effectively serve it.

“Our current goal is to understand the industry stress points, finding the answer to: how do we create the right products to ease the challenges that these industries face today, to make their whole supply chain logistics seamless, easy, and cost-effective? There is a lot of work that goes into understanding these details. We’ve got specialists for pharma, zoo-keeping, flora, even though we are a cargo company. For us, it is essential to recruit people who are specialists in these verticals, to add value to the service.”

In April 2017, Emirates launched a suite of solutions to help maintain the freshness of perishables and fresh consumables during transportation. There are three levels – Emirates Fresh, Emirates Fresh Breathe, and Emirates Fresh Active – offering varied levels of cool chain protection for different kinds of perishables. The basic solution, Emirates Fresh, is geared towards temperature-tolerant fruits and vegetables, and ensures quick ramp transportation and thermal protection through Emirates SkyCargo’s White Cover blanket. Emirates Fresh Breathe provides protection for temperature-sensitive perishables such as fresh cut flowers, ready to sell cut fruits and vegetables, and fresh fish. Unique features include prioritised ground handling as well as the use of the Emirates Fresh Ventilated Cool Dolly. Emirates Fresh Active offers the highest protection for perishables that cannot withstand any temperature deviation, using specialised temperature controlled containers during transportation.

Emirates SkyWheels, another division of SkyCargo, was introduced towards the end of 2016. The service offers specialised transport for classic, luxury, and sports cars. In May 2017, Jaguar Land Rover cars were transported from Birmingham to Chicago.

SkyCargo has constantly captured headlines for its unique cargo; in March 2017, it transported thoroughbred horses from all parts of the world to Dubai, for the Dubai World Cup, one of the world’s most prestigious horse racing events. In June same year, it transported the first car designed and built entirely in the UAE to France, where it was exhibited during the prestigious 24 hours of Le Mans endurance race.

The carrier is also involved in e-commerce deliveries, working with international online shopping giants such as Amazon.

Sultan notes: “One of the biggest products that we see emerging today is e-commerce, be it regional companies like, or international giants like Amazon. We work with both, and they both have different requirements, logistics, and supply chain. We need to map all of that and understand what it would take to deliver the goods efficiently. Because, for all of these companies, the biggest USP is: how do I deliver the purchased goods in the fastest way possible?”


Emirates SkyCargo has a dedicated facility, launched in 2016, for the handling and transport of pharmaceutical shipments, located at DXB. Emirates SkyPharma includes two temperature controlled zones (2-8oC and 15-25oC), 88 temperature-controlled individual positions in the automated pallet handling system, and five temperature-controlled acceptance and delivery truck docks.

“Three years ago, not a single pharmaceutical would approach us, because we just did not have the capability to handle pharmaceuticals,” says Sultan. “And with the stereotype, about the weather conditions in Dubai, it became really difficult for us to get a chance to work with the product. But we’ve tackled that issue. We’ve ensured that all the temperature mapping is in place, created the right infrastructure, maintained at the right temperature, and even enhanced the capability on the ramp in terms of the priority of offloading the pharmaceuticals.

“We did a complete product revamp, which has encouraged a lot of pharma companies to come in, conduct an audit, and they are very comfortable with what we offer today. Thanks to this, our pharmaceuticals handling has grown roughly 56% over last year. And, it doesn’t stop there. We’re looking at new things now, to offer a completely different product offering, because for a pharma company, this isn’t just about securing a hub. Their priority is that their products deliver from origin to destination, completely intact, and at the right temperature.”

Some of Emirates SkyCargo’s product innovations for temperature control include White Cover Advanced for valuable temperature-sensitive cargo such as vaccines, and White Container for cargo like fruits and vegetables. The Emirates SkyCargo Cool Dolly is a special piece of equipment that transports cargo from the aircraft to cool storage areas, while maintaining temperatures of as a low as -20°C

“With Emirates’ network and reach across the globe, our entire airline is being designed to connect passengers in the easiest way, from point A to B,” says Sultan. “Transferring this same thinking to cargo operations and e-commerce, so as to bring the same efficiency in this segment, becomes part of the priority that we need to look at.”

He concludes: “There are endless opportunities. It is a huge learning curve as we venture out into these verticals. It is an ongoing challenge and a very exciting time for all of us.”


Here is a short excerpt from the interview:


Nabil Sultan and his insight on Emirates SkyCargo is the cover story for the September issue of Logistics News Middle East.


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