Middle East airports continue to invest in air cargo digitalisation, sustainability and specialist infrastructure, to support their roles as key regional connecting hubs for global air freight. Meanwhile, the new airport in Istanbul is bringing fresh competition, reports Roger Hailey
Middle East airports, in particular the major Gulf airports in Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, continue to invest in air cargo facilities, digitalisation, sustainability and specialist infrastructure as key regional connecting hubs for global air freight – albeit with some changes of emphasis due to the multiple challenges of the last two years.
A key part of the success and growth of the ‘big three’ Gulf airports is obviously that they are home, respectively, to Qatar Airways, Etihad and Emirates – three large and ambitious passenger and cargo carriers with sizeable freighter fleets that have undergone rapid growth. And that looks set to continue, despite the multiple disruptions and interruptions caused by Covid.
But in addition to Qatar Airways’ Doha hub, Etihad’s Abu Dhabi home base and Emirates’ two Dubai airports, these regional aviation and air cargo big-hitters increasingly have a further serious contender. Technically, Istanbul’s new airport may not be a Middle East hub per se, located on the European side of the city; but its large and world-class cargo facilities – plus the expanding network, fleet, and cargo arm of Turkish Airlines – are well positioned to capture market share from the Gulf states and their respective airports and home carriers.
The new Istanbul Airport (IST) initially partially opened in 2018, with flag carrier Turkish Airlines moving its freighter aircraft from the former Istanbul Atatürk Airport to the new IST in February 2020. However, the development of Turkish Cargo’s own state-of the-art facilities at IST continued, with its technology partner Lödige Industries announcing in March 2022 that it had completed the new fully automated terminal for Turkish Cargo, describing it as “one of the largest and most efficient cargo terminals in the world”.
The new facility at IST more than triples Turkish Cargo’s former capacity and includes automated high-bay warehouses with 17,000 storage locations, 30 stacking cranes, 15 lifts and an integrated warehouse management system with direct interface to customer and freight management systems. It also boasts diversified special cargo areas for product groups such as temperature-controlled storage (6,000 sqm), express cargo (2,000 sqm), plus 5,000 sqm for e-commerce and mail cargo, 500 sqm dedicated to live animals, and a 1,000 sqm high-security area for handling valuable cargo.
Lödige says the size and sophistication of the new facilities mean Turkish Cargo is able to deliver the highest level of performance, even during peak demand.
Turhan Özen, chief cargo officer of Turkish Cargo, comments: “With the brand-new cargo hub at İstanbul Airport, we are able to combine the highest quality standards with the utmost efficiency, making Istanbul the most advanced logistics centre in the world.”
Majid Khan, VP of aviation development at Istanbul Airport (IST), confirms that the new IST offers a significant improvement from the former Istanbul Atatürk Airport, and its volumes have been rising rapidly.
“Istanbul Atatürk Airport was highly congested and could not fulfil Turkey’s potential in terms of belly cargo and full freight,” Khan notes. “At Istanbul Atatürk Airport, we had six cargo airlines. After three years since opening (the new IST), we have reached 16 cargo airlines and 760,000 tonnes handled in 2021 – and 675,000 tonnes in the first six months of 2022.
“Our focus is to attract more carriers with wide-bodies and upgrade existing narrow-body capacity to wide-body, to accommodate cargo potential. As this current airport is built for the future, we do not have any operational issues and airlines can utilise the untouched cargo potential in this high-volume market.
Khan adds: “We have three independent parallel runways, five including ancillary runways, and our Cargo City is located at a central location with short access to two of our eastern runways, which decreases the taxi times and provide fast connectivity.”
Planning for the airport’s Cargo City looked at examples of air freight facilities and cargo hubs worldwide, and so the operations of air cargo carriers, bonded and duty-free warehouses, ground handlers, forwarders, couriers, and public authorities have been gathered in the same location, Khan notes, adding: “Turkish Cargo’s new facility has been established on a total area of 205,000 sqm and reached an annual cargo handling capacity of 2 million tonnes. With the second phase, the capacity will reach 4 million tonnes in an area of 340,000 sqm. New technologies have been used such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and material handling systems (MHS).”
Khan believes the new airport and its cargo facilities will offer growth opportunities for all the airport’s air freight stakeholders, noting: “It helps Turkish Airlines Cargo to commence new full freight routes to untouched destinations in Africa, CIS, Asia, Europe, and Americas
and build a full freight hub between East and West, and North and South. iGA Istanbul Airport has a central geographical location, and our airport’s large land area of 76 sq km provides opportunities for global warehouse [operators] to establish their business and transport their commodities from a central location in faster and cost-efficient way.”
Doha cargo enlargement
Never one to stand still, Qatar Airways will start work in January 2023 on a second cargo terminal at Doha’s Hamad international Airport (HIA) as soon as the Qatari host nation bids farewell to visiting fans attending this year’s football World Cup. When completed by the second quarter of 2026, the three levels – each 85,000 sqm – of Doha’s Cargo Terminal 2 (CT2) will take the airport’s annual handling capacity to 5 million tonnes, compared to around 2.4 million tonnes handled in 2021.
The original CT1 will handle import and export cargo while CT2 will handle transit cargo, which accounts for 85% of Qatar Airways’ cargo throughput at Doha.
To deal with surging cargo throughputs until 2026, the carrier is building a 600,000-tonne capacity bridging facility. New infrastructure by 2026 will include dedicated areas for pharma and e-commerce goods, plus a ‘hotel for animals’.
Given that there are an extra 38 Qatar Airways B777-8F cargo aircraft due to arrive at Doha over the next decade – and possibly a further 16 – HIA has space available for a future CT3.
Abu Dhabi developments
Meanwhile, Tim Isik, vice president commercial at Etihad Cargo, says Etihad has various infrastructure investments in the pipeline at its Abu Dhabi hub, including “a new pharma facility will be opened in the near future for the transportation of pharmaceuticals to and via Abu Dhabi. Furthermore, a new animal facility will also be opening to accommodate live animals being transported to and via the UAE’s capital.”
Isik reports that customers’ requirements continue to evolve at the airline’s Abu Dhabi hub, highlighting that there are strict requirements at Abu Dhabi relating to on-time delivery, which “Etihad Cargo has met through close collaboration with partners and customers to achieve an on-time performance (OTP) rate of 83%”.
He also highlights increased requirements for digital solutions that will deliver on-ground efficiencies, noting that Etihad Cargo “is investing in an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven shape loader solution, which will enable us to increase the speed at which cargo is loaded onto and offloaded from aircraft, and better-allocated capacity to meet customers’ demands”.
Use of artificial intelligence
Etihad Cargo’s Abu Dhabi operations have entered into a proof-of-concept agreement with Speedcargo to use its artificial intelligence (AI) products to measure cargo dimensions and
optimise capacity planning across the entire value chain, from airline bookings to cargo handlings by ground handling agents.
Etihad embarked on its cargo digitalisation journey back in 2018, and since then has simplified interactions with its customers, says Isik, who claims the carrier provides customers with “a seamless end-to-end experience during all touchpoints throughout their cargo’s journey. Etihad Cargo also launched a Cargo Control Centre, enabling proactive monitoring to ensure our service delivery promise is met and supports Etihad Cargo’s customers’ needs,” Isik adds.
“In 2021, Etihad Cargo launched an enhanced online booking portal, developed following extensive customer workshops with the aim of streamlining bookings and saving customers’ time. This new online portal has reduced booking times to 45 seconds, making the booking process easier and quicker than ever before. We have continued to launch new features, including a Mandarin version of the website and booking portal, and online bookings increased by 57% in the first six months of 2022.”
Meanwhile, amid the turbulence of the last two years, Dubai has continued to play a key and evolving role within the region and globally.
With the recovery of Emirates’ passenger network and operations, as well as the progressive increase in cargo volumes, Emirates SkyCargo in March reactivated its cargo hub at Dubai World Central (DWC) airport for dedicated freighter aircraft operations, marking a return to dual hub cargo operations in Dubai for the air cargo carrier after a period of nearly two years. In April 2020, Emirates had consolidated its cargo operations at Dubai International (DXB) following the suspension of most passenger flights during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Emirates SkyCentral DWC was inaugurated in 2015 and has a total cargo capacity of more than 1 million tonnes per annum, including extensive cool chain handling facilities and a GDP- certified pharma handling zone. A fleet of dedicated trucks connect the two airports, with Emirates SkyCargo offering a connection time of under five hours from wheels down at DXB to wheels up at DWC, and vice-versa, for high priority cargo.
Changes among Dubai’s stakeholders
Dnata, part of the Emirates family but separate to the Dubai-headquartered Emirates airline, operates its own extensive facilities at DXB and Dubai World Central (DWC) airports, where it handles 700,000 metric tonnes of cargo per year. Although Dnata is a global cargo handler, it is focused in Dubai on third-party origin and destination traffic because Emirates SkyCargo is self-handling in Dubai.
Guillaume Crozier, senior vice president for UAE Cargo at Dnata, took on his new role last December as the world began to emerge from the challenges of Covid, although air freight markets have subsequently faced lockdowns in China followed by the war in Ukraine and global inflation. Despite these challenges, Dubai has seen cargo volumes continue to increase overall in 2022, says Crozier, adding: “Dubai is a robust and mature logistics hub based firstly on infrastructure and a very strong leadership – which will walk the talk to facilitate trade in Dubai.”
Crozier observes that Covid and recent events have seen changes in behaviour from various stakeholders along the supply chain in Dubai, including freight forwarders and shipping lines – the latter being important for neighbouring global deep sea container hub Jebel Ali, in terms of sea-air traffic. Crozier notes: “We need to be agile, to make sure we can adapt, learn, collaborate and deliver.”
Focus on digitalisation
One such change has been an accelerated focus on digitalisation. Crozier says digitalisation is now a “no-brainer and must happen”, but also cautions that it can be tricky to implement: “It is about collecting data at each step and move on from data capturing to data computing, and from there to semi-automation or automation – and potentially the use of artificial intelligence.”
Dnata is working with customers and partners on data modelling and data stewardship to make sure it generates accurate and meaningful data that it can use.
Crozier highlights that Dnata launched the Calogi airport community system in Dubai in June 2008, something that was “visionary” and is still relevant today. “Calogi helped us accelerate the transformation, and maybe it was the first real airport community system, putting all the stakeholders together and helping us to get the data into the booking and the slots management in place, and helping us increase throughput in a very efficient manner,” he notes.
Dnata last year announced a partnership with Kale Logistics Solutions to develop a next-generation e-commerce platform for the cargo community in the UAE.
Dubai’s leadership, says Crozier, understands the need for digital transformation: “So Dnata is now working with the customs authorities, police and logistics enabler Dubai Trade on a single window project which will help all stakeholders pull in the same digital direction with a clear mandate from the Executive Council. We have a concrete MoU and workgroup to make things happen, which is very important.”
Dubai’s specialist sea-air product is benefitting from the digitalisation focus. Sea-air, where cargo starts its journey by deep sea and transfers to airfreight for the final leg, is a blended logistics solution that is faster than pure ocean freight and cheaper than a direct flight.
Adds Crozier: “In Dubai we work on the marketing of the sea-air product to make sure that we have a solution which is especially sustainable.
“We have worked with authorities and stakeholders on entering data quickly so we can reach a minimum transit time which our customers want. We really worked hard and invested in processes and infrastructure to create a product that is more regular and that our customers can rely on and start to use more and more.”
Crozier adds: “The logistics passport initiative launched by Dubai Trade is a good example of how we professionalised a product such as sea-air to enhance the trade and to facilitate connecting the routes.”
Sustainability has also been growing as a major issue for airports in the region and for their cargo operations. Qatar Airways’ new terminal at HIA in Doha will have solar panels and other energy-saving innovations, because it has been designed with sustainability in mind to meet customer expectations.
Etihad’s Isik notes: “To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, we will reduce emissions by 20% by 2025 and cut emissions to 50% of 2019 levels by 2035. These ambitious plans are the first for any airline in the Gulf region, and Etihad is one of the few in the industry to set targets of this scale.
“We have taken strides to lead the development of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and are the only carrier in the region investing in SAF and using the first-of-its-kind technology to ensure all our aircraft are as fuel-efficient as possible.”
To make pharmaceutical logistics more sustainable, Etihad has signed an MoU with B Medical Systems to develop and launch the first airline-specific passive temperature-controlled solution to transport life-saving drugs, vaccines, and high-value pharmaceuticals.
Crozier stresses that sustainability is also a central pillar for Dnata, noting: “We have significantly invested in advanced technology to optimise resources and environmental efficiency facilities, for instance solar panels are being looked at to power our buildings.
“Recycling is a big topic for us, especially for plastic and wood, and for water from the air-conditioning system where we installed a very innovative system to recycle the water, and there is more innovation to come.
“The people at Dnata identify themselves very much with this critical aspect of doing business in an inclusive and sustainable manner. Being green and sustainable is a prime option in our planning, such as increasing the use of electric and hybrid vehicles on the ramp but also in the warehouse where we already have a good level of automation in our sheds as well.”