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Size isn’t everything: the small cargo function

photo_camera Skybus links the The Isles of Scilly with the UK's cornish coast

Aircraft like the Britten-Norman Islanders are just one of the smaller types that serve a critical role in assuring the continuity of modern life in some of the world’s most remote communities. So important is this smaller end of the utility cargo function that manufacturers are now moving to plug gaps in the industry’s ability to meet demand.

Trusty types like the Twin Otter and Dornier 228 are enjoying a new lease of life. De Havilland Canada ceased production of the Twin Otter in 1988 after 23 years and 844 aircraft.

Legacy maintenance supplier Viking Air acquired the type certificate and, in 2010, launched the Twin Otter Series 400, combining modern avionics and 800 other modifications to the original design.

The original Dornier 228 was built by Fairchild- Dornier until 1998, while the updated version from RUAG Aviation, with new five-blade propellers and glass cockpit, took to the skies in 2009.

Now Textron Aviation is developing a brand new small turboprop twin, the Cessna SkyCourier. Entry into service will be with launch customer FedEx – which has ordered 50 aircraft, with options on a further 50, scheduled in two years’ time.

Such moves are a direct response to the specific demands associated with serving remote communities – which may include short and rough strips, difficult weather, and the need for absolute reliability at reasonable operating cost.

For Marie Mulrooney, ground operations manager at Aer Arann Islands for more than 20 years, replacement of the airline’s ageing Islander fleet is always a consideration, but she asserts: “There is no shelf life on them yet. I am sure that time will come, but not yet.”

Aer Arann small air cargo
Aer Arann transporting ballot boxes to Island communities

The airline provides a true lifeline to the three rugged islands in the Aran archipelago, home to about 1,300 people off the west coast of Ireland. Its three Islanders are worked hard, providing up to 20 return passenger services a day to mainland Connemara Airport, and are critical to the maintenance of island life and, indeed, its Irish-speaking culture.

Freight is carried on all services and accounts for up to 8 per cent of revenue, says Mulrooney. It comprises urgent inbound medical supplies and outbound laboratory samples destined for the hospital in Galway, plus newspapers, courier goods, and high-value knitwear for export to the Japanese market.

Runways on the islands are limited to 600 metres or less, making the Islander “the ideal type of aircraft” – indeed, Aer Arann Islands achieves an impressive 95 per cent reliability, despite frequent sea fog. The Isles of Scilly Skybus faces similar operational constraints, linking the tiny group of Atlantic islands, that is home to a few more than 2,000 people, with the UK’s Cornish coast, 30 or so miles away.

Skybus – wholly owned by the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company – has a fleet of four Islanders and four Twin Otters, with one of the former providing two rotations daily in full freight configuration, while freight is also carried on all passenger services to and from Land’s End, Newquay and Exeter.

All year round, Skybus is the fastest way to and from the Isles of Scilly, with some flights in the air for just 15 minutes. Once again, medical supplies are an important element of the freight cargo, alongside first-class mail, ‘personal freight’ and shopping orders.

Skybus is not discussing any fleet replacement plans at present, but at Aurigny – the state-owned Guernsey-based airline that provides the lifeline links to Alderney (population 2,000) and from there to the UK mainland at Southampton – the Islander’s bigger brother, the Trislander, has been replaced by faster, more efficient new-generation Dornier 228s.

The difficulties of maintaining air links to these far-flung corners of the British Isles pale into insignificance alongside the challenges facing the islands of Saint-Pierre-et Miquelon.

The French-speaking, euro-spending French overseas collectivities, located off Canada’s Newfoundland coast, are the last tiny fragment of France’s once extensive territories in North America, and the 6,000 inhabitants do not in any sense consider themselves Canadian.

Indeed, France and Canada remain locked in a long-running dispute over territorial waters.„ The islands’ airline faces challenges in maintaining supply lines not just from Canada, but (via Montreal) from the ‘mother country’ on the other side of the Atlantic.

Air Saint-Pierre operates a single ATR 42-500 turboprop on year-round public obligation services to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and St John’s Newfoundland, from which the bulk of inbound cargo arrives, mostly on scheduled passenger-carrying services.

In cargo mode, the aircraft can carry 5.5 tonnes, but in typical mail carryings, loads bulk out at around 3.5 tonnes. Annual cargo carryings stood at 216 tonnes in 2016, of which 125 tonnes was mail.

FedEx turboprops freight service
New small turboprops are a result of demand for freight services

The figure is modest compared with what arrives by sea, but between December and March, the sea link to Newfoundland does not operate, leaving only a weekly cargo sailing from Halifax. For this reason, says Operations Director Loïc Detcheverry, the air links are of fundamental importance to islanders.

Most critical is the extraordinary 1,400km sector to Montreal. Heavy and bulky freight is not carried on this route, but it provides the means of delivery for urgent medical supplies from France.

On the opposite Canadian seaboard, is Harbour Air, founded in British Columbia in 1982. It is now one of the largest all-seaplane operators in the world, with 40 de Havilland Beavers, Otters and Twin Otters, due to be joined soon by a Cessna Caravan.

Although primarily a passenger airline, Harbour Air plays a hugely important role in delivering urgent freight to very remote communities, as Meredith Moll, vice president, sales and marketing, explains: “This service has proven to be a literal lifesaver to hundreds of people and businesses over the years.

Whether it’s medication to a remote village, time-sensitive legal documents, or a sick pet, Harbour Air transports millions of pounds of freight every year on all its scheduled flights, as well as using dedicated charter aircraft for larger contractual freight shipments.”

Widerøe air cargo
Widerøe operates public obligation services to remote areas

Scheduled air links and associated cargo carriage are just as important in the more benign climes of the Caribbean, where Antigua-based LIAT provides essential links between the islands of the eastern Caribbean. Between 2013 and 2016, the airline replaced its ageing Dash 8 fleet with modern ATRs and sold its dedicated freight aircraft.

“The ATR has smaller hold spaces than the Dash 8 and this has presented challenges,” says corporate communications manager Shavar Maloney. “We have a specific weight allocated to our cargo services for each flight,” he says, with pharmaceuticals, perishables and live animals among goods carried.

In the wake of the Hurricanes Irma and Maria, ATRs were pressed into life-saving relief operations, carrying some 12.3 tonnes of water, canned food and medical supplies.

“While we have not replaced our freighter, the discussion continues,” adds Maloney. Norwegian airline Widerøe also enjoys a special position in the infrastructure of a country characterised by long distances, high mountains and difficult weather, particularly in winter.

Runways in remote communities served by public obligation services are often short and approach challenging, and Widerøe services these with Bombardier Dash 8s, including earlier STOL (short take-off and landing) versions.

Svein Visdal, cargo director, says communities’ prosperity is directly linked to their proximity to the nearest STOL-port. “Cargo is an important part of the service, especially in remote areas.

Even if the aircraft are small and have limited capacity for cargo, Widerøe carries more than 4,400 tonnes of freight a year. That is an average of 17.5 tonnes per day, equivalent to a large truck on the roads.”

Widerøe cargo
Cargo heading to remote areas in Norway

Denmark’s BenAir is also active in Norway, providing overnight express mail and daily courier services from Oslo to all key cities, using the Cessna Caravan. Until recently this was under special derogation to permit single-engine turboprop IMC operations, which, since March last year, are now formally permitted across Europe.

In principle this opens the door to the Caravan, which has sold more than 2,500 worldwide, to enjoy the kind of success in Europe than it has hitherto in North America. On paper, it would be an obvious replacement for the Islander as a versatile carrier of both cargo and passengers.

In the US, the Caravan has been an important part of the fleet at Alaska-based Bering Air, providing lifeline freight and passenger services across the sparsely populated state, for more than 20 years.

From its bases at Nome and Kotzebue, in western Alaska, the airline connects to about 30 dirt strips serving villages of 150 to 600 people in isolated locations. In the mixed fleet, it is the ten Caravans that are the workhorses, configured in hybrid passenger-freight formation and clocking up about 15,000 hours a year.

Owner-founder and CEO Jim Rowe reckons about two-thirds of revenue on the Caravan schedules comes from cargo, mostly mail. For bigger loads, such as snow-scooters and machinery, the aircraft operate in full freight mode.

In 2015, the airline signed up with Textron to reequip with ten brand new Grand Caravans as the launch customer for the four-blade prop version, featuring modern avionics, more power and a higher payload, thanks to a lighter airframe.

It’s an operator-manufacturer relationship not dissimilar to the one behind the announcement of the new SkyCourier. FedEx too has been a long-established Caravan operator, with more than 200 Cargomasters operating short feeder legs to larger hubs.

The cargo variant of the SkyCourier will feature a large cargo door and a flat floor cabin that can handle up to three LD3 shipping containers with 2,700kg maximum payload – 30 per cent more than the Cargomaster. It’s also faster, with a maximum cruise speed of 370km/h, and a 1,700km maximum range.

Rob Scholl, senior vice president sales and marketing at Textron, says: “We have a long-standing relationship with FedEx and they had seen some increase in demand on their capacity, so it was a natural discussion with them that brought forward the SkyCourier.”

Scholl says he is already “blown away” by the level of interest among other operators. “We are really happy with the market for the SkyCourier – there is a need for it in the market place, and it helps that you have operators in the States like FedEx who will step up and make your whole investment case for you.”

Entry into service for the clean-sheet design Cessna SkyCourier is planned for 2020.

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