Julian Sutch, head of global pharma sales at Emirates SkyCargo, anticipates that once the first Covid-19 vaccines are released, there will be significant demand for capacity globally and maximum capacity utilisation across the carrier’s aircraft fleet
How have air cargo pharma demand patterns been affected since the start of the pandemic?
Demand has stayed consistent since the start of the pandemic. In addition to pharma products that are normally transported over the course of the year, there were some increases in specific medication including respiratory treatments to help patients fight COVID-19. What has changed is there has been a huge decrease in the cargo capacity available worldwide for the transport of pharmaceuticals.
What have been the biggest challenges for air cargo pharma carriers and customers during this time?
For air cargo carriers, the challenge was to re-establish a network with cargo-only flights. This required significant adjustments. We had to receive specific flight approvals for the cargo flights and plan other operational details including crewing the flights and working with ground handlers for appropriate resources to load and unload cargo from the flights. For cargo customers, the primary challenge was in getting the capacity to transport their goods, given the significant reduction, during the early phases of global lockdown, in flights and capacity.
How have carriers (and/or their customers) been adapting to accommodate these challenges and changing demand and supply patterns?
Prior to the impact of Covid-19, our dedicated cargo freighter aircraft used to transport around 30% of our total tonnage, flying to around 40 destinations every week, and our passenger aircraft carried around 70% of our cargo, flying to more than 140 destinations.
With the complete suspension of passenger operations in March, this capacity diminished overnight. There was still demand in the market to transport cargo – especially urgent materials such as PPE, pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies, food and perishables.
Air cargo carriers such as ourselves have a social responsibility to continue transporting cargo from production markets to where they are required the most. We therefore had to come up with a solution very quickly to supplement the capacity on our freighter aircraft by operating passenger aircraft only to transport cargo. We reacted very quickly to changing market conditions.
With our widebody Boeing 777 aircraft fleet, we were able to maximise cargo capacity. In addition to main deck and bellyhold capacity on our Boeing 777 full freighters and Boeing 777-300ER passenger aircraft, we also operate flights with seat and overhead bin loading for select types of cargo in our passenger aircraft. Recently, we also modified 10 Boeing 777- 300ER aircraft by removing seats in to provide additional capacity for transporting essential cargo such as medical supplies.
How do you see demand patterns developing in the coming months – for example, as vaccines for Covid-19 emerge?
There will be an increased demand for capacity when the various vaccine manufacturers start production. We are already in discussions with our customers and partners to prepare for the capacity and origin and destination pairs. We have also, over the years, invested in developing fit-for-purpose capabilities for the transport of pharma – not just at our hub in Dubai, but through our pharma corridors programme, we have worked with our ground handling partners across major pharma stations to deliver enhanced protection for temperature sensitive shipments.
Of course, a lot depends on when the vaccine is available in the market and whether it will be released during what is traditionally the peak season for cargo. We are preparing ourselves with robust capacity planning, and accurate forecasts from shippers go a long way in helping us be prepared.
We anticipate that once the vaccine is released there will be significant demand for capacity globally and we expect maximum capacity utilisation across our aircraft fleet.