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Qatar Airways Cargo has experienced rapid growth and has ambitious plans for the future. Ian Harbison reports from Doha

Qatar Airways is one of the big three Middle East carriers and, alongside Emirates and Etihad, has been introducing the latest technology in its aircraft, cabins and IFE. Like them, it also operates a network designed to feed passengers through a single hub; in this case, Doha. While these are the best known aspects of the company, subsidiary Qatar Airways Cargo has experienced consistent growth since its formation in 1997, rising from twelfth in IATA’s international FTK figures in 2011 to third in 2015.


Akbar Al Baker, Group Chief Executive, attributes this rapid expansion to operational efficiency that both reduces costs and provides a competitive edge. As a result, there has been a shift from legacy carriers and he expects their market share to decline further, with one or two major players bowing out in the next few years. In the meantime, Al Baker accuses France and Germany of protecting Lufthansa and Air France-KLM by restricting slots to Qatar Airways Cargo, saying they are misleading the EU by collusion, adding that there would be an anti-trust case if it were taking place in the US. In contrast, India is restrictive on passenger flights but has an open sky policy on cargo and is proving to be quite successful.


The Chinese market, Al Baker says, is a sleeping giant with huge potential. He feels that the carriers could become more efficient through mergers, with potential partnerships with Qatar Airways a possibility in the future. He notes that it is the government that makes the decisions on which aircraft are to be flown by the airlines, yet there is little comment about this from US carriers. He says if the Emir of Qatar walked into Boeing and ordered 200 aircraft, the “shit would hit the fan”.


Ulrich Ogiermann, Chief Officer Cargo, says growth has been very strong in the last few years. The airline is now the second largest carrier in the Netherlands and Norway, and fifth in Germany. He adds wryly that Cargolux must be worried, a not so subtle reminder that Qatar Airways sold a 35% share in the company in late 2012 after a disagreement on future strategy.


As a consequence of this expansion, the freighter fleet has also grown and now includes seven Airbus A330 Freighters, eight Boeing 777Fs and a Boeing 747-400BCF. The eighth and last A330 of the current order is expected in March 2016, but the airline retains a further eight options. The ninth 777-200F is due in June 2016, to be followed by more in July, October and March 2017. At the 2015 Paris Air Show, it converted purchase rights to orders for another four of these aircraft.


The fleet operates to more than 40 destinations, but belly cargo on passenger aircraft adds around another 150 airports to the global network. In fact, the balance tilts only slightly towards the freighter fleet, which accounts for 51% of traffic. In 2015, belly freight amounted to just over 1.5 million tonnes. Of this, 29% is imported into Qatar, 10% is exported and 39% is in transit.


The number of destinations continues to grow – Qatar Airways introduced 12 new belly-hold destinations with 11 new freighter destinations in 2014, with eight and seven added in 2015 respectively. One of the airline’s strengths is that it serves developing markets in Africa and Asia that are untouched by European or US carriers – a factor that seems to be misunderstood in the current anti-subsidies campaign against the big three by American, Delta and United. A passenger from Djibouti may want to go to the US, but US airlines do not want to go to Djibouti. Qatar Airways can do both. A cargo example would be Sialkot, in Pakistan's Punjab province, which is famous for textiles and has been served with a direct freighter service since 2008.


The latest example of cargo being able to piggyback passenger operations is a new four-times-weekly Boeing 787 service between Doha and Durban that started in December 2015. This gives Qatar Airways Cargo an additional 40 tonnes of belly-hold capacity a week. The new rate complements an existing three-times-weekly 777F service to Johannesburg, which started in 2012 and currently transports over 16,000 tonnes of cargo into and out of South Africa each year. Exports include a high percentage of automotive components, such as engines, converters and leather seats, as well as fresh fish to Spain and fresh fruit and flowers into the Middle East and Europe. Imports include IT equipment, automotive spares, chemicals, foodstuffs, machinery, pharmaceuticals and telecommunication parts. There has also been a growing demand in South Africa for the airline’s QR Charter product, particularly from the construction, livestock and oil and gas industries.


These on-demand charter services have been identified as another source of revenue. While the capacity of the Airbus A330 and Boeing 777 freighters suits most operations, the company has been missing out on the lucrative outsize freight market, such as the movement of heavy equipment for the oil and gas industries or for significant infrastructure projects. In response, in summer 2015 the airline leased a converted Boeing 747-400 freighter fitted with a side cargo door from myCargo of Turkey. The agreement allowed for use on an ‘as and when required’ basis. The market response was positive, although the aircraft was also used to provide capacity on scheduled services when other freighters were chartered out. In January, it was replaced by an ex-Singapore Airlines 747-400BCF production freighter on a long-term wet lease from myCargo. This was fitted with a nose door, which gives much greater operational flexibility – ISO 40ft containers can be rolled straight into the hold or up to eight grooms can be accommodated when required for equine transport.


At the centre of the network, of course, is Hamad International Airport in Doha, which opened in late 2013. At the centre of the airport is a 55,000m², two-storey cargo terminal that has grown its capacity to 1.4 million tonnes per annum, a 75% increase on the old Doha International Airport. This is run by Qatar Aviation Services, a subsidiary of the Qatar Airways Group, which has additional responsibility for ground handling and the airport lounges. The terminal is also used by other carriers, such as Cargolux, Etihad Cargo, Lufthansa Cargo and Turkish Cargo, although Qatar Airways Cargo dominates. The self-contained terminal can handle 5,700 cargo shipments at any one time, and has 42 airside loading docks and 31 landside truck-loading facilities. A fully automated storage and retrieval system can process up to 1,000 ULDs at a time.


Cold comfort

Given the high temperatures and relative humidity in Qatar, the exposure of sensitive commodities must be kept to a minimum. The airline has therefore developed Quick Ramp Transfer (QRT) to ensure protection, especially between the cargo terminal and the aircraft.


These materials are stored in temperature controlled rooms in the terminal, but when they are called forward the dedicated Climate Control Team already knows which zone of the aircraft will be used for loading, thus it can time the transport accordingly.  >>

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