The outsized charter business requires specialist planning and equipment. Keith Mwanalushi examines the unique aircraft operations at Antonov Airlines.
No one day is the same at Antonov Airlines, which specialises in the transport of outsized and project cargo worldwide.
The range of charters is quite fascinating. Some notable operations have included an 88-tonne water turbine heading to Uzbekistan, delivering portable generators to hurricane-stricken Guadalupe or transporting a power plant rotor from Italy to Pakistan.
The fleet includes AN-124-100 ‘Ruslan’ aircraft, AN- 22, and the unique 250-tonne payload AN-225 ‘Mriya’, which is the largest aircraft in the world, as well as smaller AN-74 and AN-26 aircraft.
Back in April, AN-225 ‘Mriya’ returned into commercial service after a lengthy period undergoing maintenance. “The AN-225 is the absolute jewel in the fleet,” Andriy Blagovisniy, head of commercial development at Antonov Airlines tells Airline Cargo Management.
The AN-225 was first developed for the role of transporting the Buran spacecraft. It is an enlargement of the AN-124. After successfully fulfilling its Soviet military missions, it was mothballed for eight years.
It was then refurbished and reintroduced and now flying with Antonov Airlines carrying oversized cargoes. The specs are quite staggering. The AN-225 has a wingspan of 88.4m and a cargo bay of 43m long, 6.4 m wide and 4.4m high.
It is called ‘Mriya’ which means ‘dream’ in Ukrainian; it has 242 world records to its name, and interestingly it’s the only one operating in the market. After being out of operation for about a year, during which time it underwent maintenance, some partial modernisation was done and the extension of the airworthiness was achieved.
The AN-225 reentered commercial service in April this year, with flights operating from Germany and Malaysia to Saudi Arabia.
“Since then, we have enjoyed a record four months with AN-225 operations, with our current project in South America consisting of 12 flights, which is the longest succession of AN-225 flights in the aircraft’s commercial history,” Blagovisniy adds.
He says the AN-225 has a maximum payload of 250 tonnes and can load single pieces weighing up to 200 tonnes.
“The AN-225 has a roll-on-roll- off option, internal cranes that can lift 30-tonne pieces anywhere in the world, winch-on-winch- off capability as well as improved navigation equipment.”
In another unique operation last year, Antonov Airlines delivered portable generators to Hurricane stricken Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, on one of its seven AN-124-100 aircraft. The emergency consignment of 32 EDF Group generators were moved from Châteauroux, France to Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, in under 24 hours.
The generators, which weighed a total of 105 tonnes, were needed to provide electricity to the French overseas regions of Guadalupe and Saint Martin, both of which were severely affected by Hurricane Irma.
The aircraft was in Cairns, Australia, at the time the charter was confirmed, which meant there had to be quick and meticulous planning to respond and move the aircraft halfway around the world. It was just one of several flights that delivered humanitarian and relief cargo to the Caribbean from the governments of France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
In April, Chapman Freeborn reported that it teamed up with Antonov Airlines to keep a mining project on schedule by delivering two 17m long drill rigs from the US to Australia.
Destined for an iron ore mine in the Pilbara region of western Australia, the two Pit Viper 271 rotary rig towers were flown from Houston to Perth on the AN- 124-100 aircraft, chartered by Chapman Freeborn’s US team on behalf of a mining company.
The 21-tonne pieces were originally scheduled to be shipped to Australia as sea freight, but Chapman Freeborn was called in at short notice to arrange an air charter solution to ensure that the project deadline was met.
Following the successful loading of the cargo, the aircraft departed on schedule and flew to Perth via stops in Hawaii, Fiji and Brisbane.
The main challenge of the project was to load two oversized rotary rig towers by means of one set of loading equipment. This task required a non-standard technical solution offered by the airline’s engineers.
The loading process in Houston required the use of the AN-124’s ramp apparatus in addition to two external cranes brought in to safely manoeuvre the outsized parts.
Working with Western suppliers for its fleet modernisation programme, the airline hopes to ensure its aircraft are fit to fly well into the future.
As part of this programme, Antonov Airlines has increased the payload of some of its AN-124 airframes from 120 to 150 tonnes and will expand this across the remaining aircraft in due course.
“We are the only operator of the certified AN- 124-100M-150 aircraft, which means we can offer our customers an increased payload of up to 150 tonnes per flight,” Michael Goodisman, business development director, affirms.
He explains that the payload increase was achieved by reinforcing the structure, cargo floor and cargo ramp, as well as changing the types of tyres used.
“Also, the efficient planning of the maintenance of the fleet allowed us to have the entire fleet operational for longer periods of time in 2018, which means customers were provided with the required availability during the busy months of the year,” he continues.
The Ukrainian cargo airline saw a record 139 per cent increase in tonnes of energy cargo carried in 2017.
In a classic example, Antonov Airlines transported a power plant rotor from Genoa, Italy to Karachi, Pakistan on board one of its seven AN-124-100 aircraft.
The cargo, which included the rotor and associated equipment, weighed a total of 108 tonnes and careful planning was necessary to guarantee the safe loading and unloading of the rotor.
Energy-related cargo was among the company’s stronger sectors in 2017, accounting for 11 per cent of total output.
Shipments have also included four flights from Slovenia to Mexico providing more than 60 megawatts of power and 41 flights from the US to Puerto Rico, with over 80 per cent of cargo carried being energy-related.
“In 2018, we have carried almost 2000 tonnes of energy-related equipment within a single project alone, on the mighty AN-225 in South America for Siemens,” says Blagovisniy.
The company saw an 81 per cent revenue increase in 2017 compared to the previous year, while January to May figures in 2018 were up 42 per cent, with aerospace being one of the key sectors, the Ukrainian airline reports.
The carrier’s growth is the result of its strategic partnership with Dreamlifts Limited as Goodisman explains:
“At the end of 2016, we partnered with Dreamlifts Limited and established its UK headquarters at London Stansted Airport to provide Antonov Airlines customers with a seamless transition following the split of the joint venture.”
With considerable experience between them, Antonov Company and Dreamlifts –which is managed by an international group of well-known experts in the field – have provided what they say is a seamless transition to Antonov Airlines customers in the global supply chain.
Goodisman also says a US office in Houston, TX has opened and appointed general sales agents in India, Australia and Japan.
Under an Open Skies Agreement between Ukraine and the US, Antonov Airlines is the only AN-124 operator to be granted a blanket exemption for unlimited flights to and from the USA.
The carrier says an agreement allows it to carry any type of cargo to or from the US with only a few hours’ notice without the need to obtain US Department of Transport (DoT) statements of authorisation.
At Antonov Airlines, Goodisman says they have embraced the ‘Global Reach, Personal Touch’ approach, which means that there is a very personalised service, in which one project manager will take the customer through the whole process of quotation, contracting, flying and post-flight follow up.
“Our sales and operations team are available around the clock and we also have a dedicated flight manager on all of our flights that takes care of the shipment on board.
We are happy to say that our customers have been very supportive throughout the period of changes over the last 18 months and they value the service they are provided,” he adds.
So, what are the prospects for the outsized cargo charter business moving forward? Goodisman believes the market and the business have been good for the first half of 2018 and expects to see this positive trend continue in the second half of this year also.
However, he warns of some potential challenges ahead such as trade disputes, which could disrupt this upward trend, but affirms: “Our ability to react to growth remains thanks to the efficient operation of our existing freighter fleet along with very cautious consideration of fleet expansion.”
He sees the oil sector recovering as renewed confidence leads to projects restarting. “The general upturn has meant many sectors started to recover even before the oil and gas projects translated into additional flying for us.
“We are also hoping to continue seeing the US business grow following the establishment of the physical presence in the region.”
So, it looks like it is big business as usual for Antonov Airlines.