emirates plane

In the wake of the country wide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the country, airlines had to innovate ways to continue operations as passenger operations came to a standstill. Most of the airlines resorted to operating cargo flights. According to Vianey Luggya, Uganda Civil Aviation Authority spokesperson, Entebbe Airport handled 5,977 metric tonnes of cargo in March 2021 up from 4,766 tonnes in February 2021, adding a total of 58,000 tonnes were handled in 2020 compared to 42,000 in 2019.

In an interview with Samuel Angura, Emirates Cargo Manager, he shares how the airline has been supporting trade and business continuity despite the set-back caused by the pandemic.

What has been the uptake of cargo services since 15 March 2020?

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Emirates SkyCargo made several adjustments to its operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In late March 2020, our passenger operations were completely suspended because of the pandemic. As a result, Emirates SkyCargo lost most of its cargo capacity as during normal operations, close to 70% of the total cargo is transported in the belly hold of passenger aircraft.

For the six-month period between 1 April 2020 and 30 September 2020, Emirates SkyCargo transported 0.8 million tons of cargo across our global network. Due to the effect of COVID-19, overall cargo volumes reduced by about 35% when compared to the same period the previous year. However, Emirates SkyCargo responded rapidly to changing circumstances and scaled up our operations by introducing cargo only flights on passenger aircraft, loading cargo in the cabin of the aircraft – both on seats and in overhead compartments as well as on the floor of aircraft with Economy Class seats removed. With these measures, we were still able to uplift 65% of previous year’s cargo volumes.

Currently Emirates SkyCargo flies to more than 130 destinations around the world and transports cargo through about 2000 flights weekly – this is a mix of cargo transported on passenger flights, cargo only flights on passenger aircraft and full freighter flights. Emirates operates five weekly flights to and from Uganda, utilising the cargo capacity on its Boeing 777-300ER passenger aircraft to facilitate movement of goods.

With things still running slow in most countries and the business environment specifically, what type of cargo is being transported in and out of Uganda?

In late March 2020, Emirates SkyCargo restarted its cargo operations to Uganda, ensuring continuity to local businesses with dedicated cargo flights, starting with bi-weekly flights before scaling it up following increased demand,

Emirates SkyCargo exported perishables such as chilled fish (Nile Perch), fruits and vegetables, such as, bananas, pineapples, avocado, chilies, hot pepper, white egg plants and sweet potatoes, among others. Imports to Entebbe included general cargo and pharmaceuticals. Due to the reduction of flights/capacity, uplift of cargo volumes decreased by 40% and revenue by 10%.

Has Emirates increased the cost per kilogram for the cargo services? If so, why?

Emirates SkyCargo is taking various factors into consideration and is offering competitive rates to transport cargo from Uganda to the United Arab Emirates and other regions.

Is there any unique cargo that Emirates SkyCargo has handled during this period?

During the initial months of the pandemic, there was a huge surge in the demand for air cargo capacity for the transportation of PPE such as face masks and gloves in addition to medical equipment such as ventilators as well as other pharmaceutical supplies. The other commodities for which the demand remained high included perishables and food items. However, during the second half of the year, other commodities for industries and manufacturing also started being transported as various markets slowly started opening up for manufacturing activity. We also saw increased volumes of e-commerce shipments as more people shopped online.

In February, Emirates SkyCargo signed a collaboration with UNICEF to transport COVID-19 vaccines, essential medicines, medical devices and other critical supplies to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. This month, Emirates SkyCargo transported over 800,000 doses of vaccines to Uganda in line with the UNICEF collaboration.

Additionally, in January 2021, under the directives of Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Emirates SkyCargo joined hands with three other Dubai-based entities – DP World, International Humanitarian City and Dubai Airports to form a COVID-19 vaccine alliance for rapid transport of COVID-19 vaccines to the developing world through Dubai.

What has prepared the airline for this opportunity?

Emirates SkyCargo has vast expertise in transporting temperature sensitive pharmaceuticals and vaccines across our network. Recognising the scale of the response that would be required to coordinate the logistics of global COVID-19 vaccine distribution, we have set up a dedicated anchor hub for cold chain storage and distribution of the vaccine at our GDP certified cargo terminal in Dubai World Central. This is the world’s largest dedicated airside hub for storing and distributing COVID-vaccines. The Dubai hub will allow us to fly in vaccines from manufacturing sites globally, store and prepare shipments for regional and global distribution.

Our dedicated COVID-19 vaccine hub has over 4,000 square metres of temperature-controlled GDP certified dedicated pharma storage area allowing for large scale storage and distribution of the potential COVID-19 vaccines. Overall, it is estimated that the facility can hold around 10 million vials of vaccine at a 2-8 degrees Celsius temperature range at any one point of time. Our state-of-the-art infrastructure at Dubai is also complemented by one of the world’s largest fleet of Cool Dollys helping protect temperature sensitive cargo during transit between the aircraft and cargo terminal.

We have also set up a dedicated rapid response team, made up of the key stakeholders in our business who understand the complexities moving vaccines. They will coordinate requests from the various partners involved in the international vaccine distribution ecosystem and streamline our response to requests.

We also came up with other innovative solutions to increase the amount of air cargo capacity. This included loading cargo on the seats of passenger aircraft and in the overhead bins. Of course, before we introduced this, we also had to make a complete safety evaluation and develop guidelines for our worldwide team to follow. In the month of June, we also removed seats in Economy Class from 10 Boeing 777-300ER aircraft to convert them into what we like to call ‘mini-freighters’. We have now operated cargo only flights on Airbus A380 aircraft.

Have we increased the number of freighters from Uganda during this period?

From March 6th, Emirates has been operating five weekly flights from four previously, therefore providing businesses more options on flights to transport goods.

What preventive measures is Emirates SkyCargo taking with regards to its cargo handling staff?

Emirates and Emirates SkyCargo place the highest levels of importance on safety and the quality of our service delivery. This is a key differentiating factor for our customers in addition to our other value propositions such as having a modern all wide-body aircraft fleet, an extensive global network covering six continents as well as state of the art infrastructure in Dubai. We have one of the highest levels of “Delivered as Promised” for cargo in the industry.

Our commitment to quality is also a result of the fact that the cargo that we transport in our aircraft often have a direct impact on the lives of people across the globe. For example, we transport temperature sensitive pharmaceuticals on our aircraft every day. Without strict adherence to quality standards and compliance to EU GDP norms, there is a risk that the quality of the medicine can be compromised which can directly affect the wellbeing of the person waiting to receive it.