Stan Abbott looks at how swing-up nose loading is increasingly providing the answer to challenging oversized and heavy air freight.
The arrival of the Boeing 747 and other widebodies close to 50 years ago marks one of the most significant turning- points in the history of air freight, not least because the modern airline industry cargo container has been around for about the same length of time.
But not everything will fit into a 2.44 x 3.15-metre box – and, as load carrying capabilities continue to increase, it is perhaps inevitable that there should be parallel growth in the demand for the carriage of out-of-gauge cargoes.
Today it is still Boeing 747 freighter variants that come to the fore when carrying out-of-gauge loads, and that’s thanks to the iconic nose door capability of the aircraft, which is helping to define an increasingly specialist air cargo niche.
Among cargo operators that are turning the transportation of outsize loads into a virtue, is AirBridgeCargo, part of the Moscow-based Volga-Dnepr Group.
Its 12-strong fleet of new Boeing 747-8Fs have a payload of 132 tonnes and can accommodate loads as long as 44 metres, and up to 3.8 metres wide, 3.15 metres high and weighing up to 62 tonnes. AirBridgeCargo has wrapped the expertise it has acquired in accommodating such large cargoes in a single product: abcXL.
Fedor Novikov, deputy general director, special products, explains that the key to the new product is the carrier’s ability to exploit expertise and equipment across the wider Volga-Dnepr Group. This includes not just in-house engineering facilities, but also extensive experience and knowledge.
“With these valuable resources we are able to design and manufacture additional equipment for safe transportation of extra-heavy and oversized equipment,” he says, adding that this can include the production of special frames and reinforced pallets, for example.
The scope of the abc XL product extends to many areas of the airline’s operation, including Sales, Operations and Procurement, with a sharp focus on the maintenance of service and quality standards and the ability to deliver the full range of services implicit in outsized cargo shipment.
These include loadability checks, packaging compliance and consultations, cargo cabin floor load calculations, tie-down and lashing schemes, shoring requirements, and trucking, if required.
Novikov continues: “The loading of oversized cargo is a time-consuming process and requires more time than general cargo. That said, XL cargo needs precise planning with the clear understanding of all departments involved to guarantee schedule integrity, as well as safety and on-time delivery of other shipments.
“We have been using the latest 3D modelling software for many years to plan loading processes for outsize and heavy cargo, carrying out ‘virtual’ loadings on screen to identify and solve any potential challenges and, most importantly, to eliminate any delays in handling and loading procedures on the days of actual flights.”
Novikov says this technology is a great tool because it also helps their customers to visualise how the airline is are going to move their very important, high value, and, often, highly sensitive pieces of cargo: “So, it’s not only a practical tool, it also provides assurance for our customers.”
AirBridgeCargo has developed special operating procedures for high-value outsize cargoes, such as aeroengines, as Novikov explains: “What is of paramount importance is the loadability check, which is accomplished with 3D simulation software modelling and consultations with the engine’s and transport stand’s manufacturers.”
This has led to the evolution of a Standard Operation Procedure for engine carriage and Local Operational Procedures specific to particular airports.” abc XL extends across the AirBridgeCargo scheduled freight network, including also interline partners, as well as on whole-aircraft charter operations, for which abc XL specialists can be positioned on site to monitor loading and offloading.
The 747 8F is, of course, central to the entire abc XL operation, though Novikov accepts that there may be limits.
“In some situations, at first sight the cargo cannot fit into a 747, but even in such cases we try to be creative and look outside the box to make it feasible,” he says.
“For instance, certain elements of the cargo may be dismantled and packed separately. Otherwise, we transfer the request to our colleagues at Volga-Dnepr Airlines to see if the cargo can be transported by An-124-100 or Ilyushin 76TD-90VD.”
However, he adds: “Super-long shipments, such as industrial pipes, cranes, and so on, are not possible to dismantle, and most importantly, their breakdown will be costly and time-consuming. In such cases, nose- door loading capability facilitates the speed and safety of loading procedures, as well as guaranteeing that the cargo remains intact.”
Looking to the future, Novikov envisages a further strengthening of its abc XL product network. “As with other special commodities, customers with out-of-gauge shipment raise the bar for quality performance. To guarantee that these requirements are met we are in constant three-party dialogue – carrier- freight forwarder-OEM (original equipment manufacturer).
Besides, he says customers tend to expect the same level of customer experience they get as a consumer, such as services being ‘wrapped up’ in digital solutions, such as online track and trace, freight status updates, or in-flight shock sensors, to provide evidence that cargo is not damaged during transportation.
Nose up, and down under
The Australian national carrier, Qantas Freight, has also seen the potential of Boeing 747 8F, with two of the type recently acquired and operated on its behalf by Atlas Air. Each aircraft offers 20 per cent more freight capacity and space for seven extra cargo pallets compared with the 747-400F.
Qantas Freight Executive Manager Paul Jones said the recent arrival of the 747-8F aircraft would better meet customer demand for freight capacity around the globe, with the two freighters now operating between Australia, China and the USA, and with additional routes being explored.
While the aircraft are painted in Atlas Air livery, the Qantas Freight logo is displayed on either side of the nose and underneath the freighters’ nose cargo door. Executive vice president and chief commercial officer for Atlas Air Worldwide, Michael Steen, said the company was delighted that Qantas Freight had extended its long-term relationship and partnership with the company, reflecting the global scale of Atlas Air’s fleet and services.
“Our flexibility to adapt empowers our customers in express and e-commerce delivery, airline, freight forwarding and charter to increase their fleet flexibility and network efficiency,” he says.
This in turn helps them to extend their global presence, and capitalise more quickly on market-growth opportunities, he adds, stressing that the carrier’s extensive experience in transporting outsize and specialty freight across the globe and Steen says nose-door loading capability is critical to this.
“Nose-door capability is unique to the 747 and a differentiator for Atlas Air,” he says. “Atlas stands ready to handle all special cargo needs, including heavy, bulky or oversized cargo, such as pipes, cable drums, heavy machinery, oversized equipment parts, and vehicles of all sizes.
“Our ability to carry large items that other aircraft cannot will continue to appeal to customers involved in oil and gas, aviation, and heavy machinery, among other industries.”
Of course, nose-door loading also makes it possible to load and unload cargo simultaneously from the side and nose doors, enabling faster turnarounds.
Heavy loads from Luxembourg Luxembourg-based Cargolux is another freight specialist that sees intrinsic advantages to the nose-lading capability of the Boeing 747 freighter family and it has developed a customised service for off-size shipments, CV jumbo.
“The product offers significant benefits, including dedicated experts to devise tailored solutions for each piece, extensive know-how and experience, as well as specialised equipment to ensure safe and timely transport,” says Olav Glorvigen, director product management.
“Cargolux carefully plans all jumbo shipments and guides its customers every step of the way,” he continues, adding that specialists are available to travel to customers’ premises if required.
“Building on our 50 years of experience, our team of experts has integrated innovation and technology into the loading, offloading, and transport procedures for off-size and heavy cargo. Our subject matter experts have also created a number of in-house tools to optimise weight and balance and further secure these jumbo pieces.”
Cargolux sees its global operation as very much focussed on the carriage of niche cargoes, among which out-of-gauge freight is just one segment, but one that requires detailed planning and resource allocation. “Our global network offers extensive transport opportunities worldwide and access to numerous commercial hubs,” says Glorvigen.
Scheduled destinations are complemented by a comprehensive trucking network, while in addition, the carrier’s charter team offers a round-the- clock service from its bases in Luxembourg, Chicago, and Hong Kong.
“In the event that our scheduled frequencies cannot meet a customer’s requirements, the charter team can provide efficient and timely response, with a flexible fleet available at short notice,” he adds.
Glovigen adds the 747’s nose-door capability enables the seamless loading of long and bulky pieces that cannot be loaded through a traditional side cargo door. He says this feature gives Cargolux a competitive advantage since it also enables the unobstructed use of specialised loading equipment such as cranes, high loaders, and so on.
The fleet of 747s can easily accommodate shipments measuring 20m and longer, heights up to 3m – and regularly handle shipments wider than 3.4m.
He continues: “Our CV jumbo product is witnessing growing demand and we have recently achieved important milestones in that field. After years of careful preparation, Cargolux has broken new ground in the carriage of large and bulky pieces to China, a market that is currently under development.
“In August, we successfully transported a 10-metre long shaft, with a total gross weight of 43 metric tonnes, from Luxembourg to Zhengzhou, the largest piece ever to transit through Zhengzhou airport. Shortly afterwards, our sister company, Cargolux Italia, uplifted the heaviest piece ever out of Milan Malpensa, also destined for Zhengzhou.”
Glorvigen sees nose door loading as conferring an increasing market advantage as business evolves over the coming years.
He neatly summarises the industry’s general direction of travel: “With the increasing number of narrow- body freighters and combination carriers, the transport of off-size pieces is fast becoming a very niche business in air cargo,” he explains.
“As this tendency evolves, it is our priority to ensure these transports are feasible and to provide our customers with the necessary means to carry them out.”
Visit cargolux.com for more information.