Technology – how to get cargo off the ground

Ever wondered how the airfreight industry works? Kenya Airways Cargo has a growing fleet of freighters serving the booming trade in air cargo both within Africa and between the continent and the rest of the world.

Just about anything can be shipped by air, from letters to livestock, vegetables to vehicles. Packed into the belly of the plane on which you are sitting reading this, there will be all kinds of air cargo, alongside your check-in baggage. However, passenger aircraft obviously have limitations when it comes to freight capacity. To handle large quantities of goods, or accommodate big items, you need a dedicated cargo plane.

Although Kenya Airways Cargo was formally launched in 2004, it was not until May this year that it formally ‘took off’ as an independent wing. Its core mandate was to optimise the cargo capacity of Kenya Airways passenger aircraft and develop a dedicated freighter network.

The Boeing 737-300s were earmarked for the project, partly because they were fully owned by the company, but also because they were due for phasing out as passenger aircraft. Four were quickly selected and two converted into freighter planes at a cost of US$300,000 per aircraft.

Africa’s cargo hub
According to Kenya Airways’ Cargo Commercial Manager Luke Arrum: “We are ready to position the airline as a partner for trade between Africa and the world. And we also aim to position Nairobi as the preferred cargo hub for Africa.”

Business has picked up fast. Seafood is now being hauled from Mwanza to Europe, vegetables from Entebbe to other parts of Africa. Sea-to-air business at the coast has grown in leaps and bounds.

James Kimani, Kenya Airways’ Cargo Sales Manager Africa, enthuses about the new trade movement as an indicator of Africa’s readiness to embrace the airfreight business.

“There is no doubt that the opportunity is big in Africa right now,” he says. “This is because African democracies are maturing and African countries are getting more stable than they were before. The major challenge the freight business faced was pertaining logistical capacity and so this is a big step for us.”

“Nairobi is well placed in the region to handle freight business,” adds Kimani. “We are targeting regional markets and our placement provides a good central location for this engagement. We have the capacity to support the level of trade going on around us.”

Airfreight logistics
Air cargo, although more expensive than road haulage, is beginning to make more sense to businesspeople who need to transport their goods, say, from the coast of Mombasa to landlocked countries in Africa.

“It takes about 14 days to haul goods by road from the port of Mombasa to the DRC,” says Arrum. “ This is assuming nothing happens along the way, like accidents. Airfreighting will cut down these days to a few hours and save the businessman headaches and other significant overheads.”

Is the operation of the airfreight business any different to the passenger service? “We don’t have a separate crew that manages the cargo side of the business,” says Arrum. “Pilots who fly our passenger planes sometimes fly the cargo planes.”

The business hopes to generate about Ksh2bn a year when fully up and running. More planes are expected to join the couple already in operation, helping KQ become a major player in the region.

Converting to freight
How do you take a passenger liner like the Boeing 737-300 and turn it into a dedicated airfreighter? The conversion of each Kenya Airways’ 737-300 takes between three and four months and is undertaken by a specialist aeronautical engineering firm in Shanghai.

One of the first jobs carried out is the replacement of passenger cabin windows with lightweight aluminium plugs. All passenger seating is stripped out, along with the service galley and toilets. A large cargo door, measuring around 3.5 x 2.2 metres, is cut in the fuselage and fitted with all the necessary hydraulic and electrical systems.

Much of the conversion process focuses on the main deck, which needs to be adapted to hold a maximum payload of nearly 20,000kg. The floor is reinforced and fitted with 10 separate pallet positions. A special floor-roller system allows heavy loads to be manoeuvred into position.

Case study: the Vegpro Group
Vegpro are one the leading exporters of vegetables, cut flowers and other fresh produce, with operations in Ghana, Ethiopia and the UK. They have six farms and manage about 1700 smallholder farmers in major producing areas of Kenya. This means that they export produce, year-round, to various destinations across the world. Kenya Airways is proud to be one 
of their freight partners. About 4-8 tonnes of fresh produce need to 
be transported to Europe, arriving quickly and in good condition. The produce is taken to Vegpro’s warehouse where it is packaged for freight. This is a sensitive process, ensuring that vegetables are not damaged and also retain their flavour when they reach their final destination.