Handling the complicated

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Abu Dhabi-based Maximus Air Cargo has grown in just six years to become the largest all-cargo airline in the UAE. Will Waters talks with Maximus Air Cargo’s Director of Ground Handling, Denis McClean, about the art of managing complicated charter cargo flights

Airline operations and their associated handling requirements can rarely be described as simple, although for scheduled carriers, there is at least a certain amount of stability and predictability that comes from knowing where and when the airline will be flying – even in the more flexible and spontaneous world of cargo. But for charter and wet-lease (ACMI – aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance) operators, the picture is more complex and fluid, especially where it involves ad hoc flights to airports that the airline has seldom or never been to before – and where the cargo is unlikely to be in neatly palletised boxes.

But this has become familiar territory in a relatively short time for Maximus Air Cargo. Its fleet includes Antonov AN-124-100 and Ilyushin IL-76TD aircraft, dedicated mainly to charter work, for customers including governments, royalty and VIPs, the military, and the humanitarian sector, plus A300-600RF aircraft, mainly dedicated to the wet-lease market for airlines. There is, therefore, an ever-changing series of challenges for McClean.

With three, or possibly four, additional A300s set to join its fleet later this year, there will also be another new set of issues to resolve shortly. The plan is to place these on long-term ACMI contracts, although not necessarily with the customer of the airline’s other two A300s, fellow Abu Dhabi-based sister airline, Etihad Airways.

From the outside, ACMI contracts may appear to be similar to regular scheduled services using an airline’s own aircraft, but the involvement of a third-party involves a lot of additional care, consideration and communication, says McClean. For example, officially, the ACMI operator is the one that is responsible for the handling although, in practice, the decision on the choice of handlers is usually made by the customer airline.

“The customer is the one paying for it, and so he is the one that will have the ground handling agreements (GHAs) in place with his suppliers,” says McClean. Since the costs of the handling will be affecting the airline’s bottom line, there is a natural temptation for them to opt for lower cost suppliers. They may also have a preference for an existing supplier, whereas handlers that are good for passenger services are not always the best provider of cargo handling services, observes McClean. Furthermore, sometimes the legal requirements of the customer and aircraft operator can be different.

“There is potential for conflict in this area, so we have to tackle it together,” he adds. “We have learned that when we put together ACMI contracts, we need to look closely at the handling agreements, because problems with these will affect both ourselves and the customer. For example, slow handling may mean that we miss a rotation – which is not good for either party.”

McClean says Maximus has never had any major problems in this regard itself, but it has only been in the ACMI market for a few years. “The customers that we have been dealing with have all been experienced operators, but it is something that we always need to look carefully at, especially with customers that are using ACMI as a way of starting up freighter services for the first time,” he says. “One thing we can do in those cases is to conclude the handling agreements on his behalf, and there are things that we can add in order to make sure that service levels are maintained, for example.”

Once the handling agreements are in place, it is the ACMI operator that is in the best position to know what is happening on the ground, and so it is important that he has copies of the ground handling agreements. “We do regular audits to make sure that what the customer has paid for is what we are getting,” McClean says.  “For example, some handling companies might say that something is an extra item. If we have the contract in our hands, we know whether that is something that is included in the contract. The big ground handling companies would not generally try to do that, but I have come across that kind of thing with some smaller companies – it keeps us on our toes,” he adds.

But it is probably fair to say that the challenges of ACMI pale in comparison with the constantly evolving world of ad hoc charters. “It is an art form,” says McClean. “With the scheduled operations, if we make a mistake today, we know what to look out for tomorrow, and so we can develop a smooth operation. On the ad hoc side, we need to have a very good team, because we really have to get it right first time. So we have a huge checklist of things that we need to get in place, and we sometimes have people on the aircraft whose sole job is to make sure things go according to that plan.”

In addition to arranging things like traffic rights and over-flight rights, and general arrangements at the airports, the nature of the cargo can sometimes be a huge logistical operation in itself, even for so-called self-handling, specialist outsize cargo aircraft such as AN-124 and IL-76.

“People call them self-handling, but the cargo still has to get to and from the aircraft, and has to have security and dangerous-goods screening, and go through customs, and all of that has to go through a ground handling agent,” points out McClean. “In the less well known airports, the handling agent is sometimes surprised by what comes, and it becomes quite a big operation for him. For example, aircraft like the Ilyushin can take complete trucks inside them, or maritime containers, and the handling agent will not necessarily know that. Because we have done these kinds of things before, they are usually prepared to let us direct the operation and their staff. And with the Antonov, everything is on an even bigger scale,” he adds.

And quite an operation it is. For example, the An-124 will often need to carry 22 to 24 people with it on the aircraft, in addition to up to 120 tonnes of cargo – almost three times the payload of the IL-76. Typically, this might include an “augmented crew”, including two captains, so that one crew can rest if there is a long loading or unloading operation taking place. Complex shipments might take as long as 24 hours to load, for example. “If we have a large outsized load of say, 90 tonnes, we can very easily get into a situation where we are delayed several hours, which can be solved by the augmented crew, while having extra loading crews means we can split them into one loading and one unloading team, and they take rest alternately,” says McClean.

There will also be a flight co-ordinator, who represents the airline in its dealings with the customer and the ground handling agent, and the airport authorities, including responsibility for making the necessary payments. And also making up the team will be a number of technicians, including loadmasters – responsible for the aircraft’s ‘trim’, weight distribution, and stacking of things like pallets – as well as specialists in the mechanical side of the aircraft and its handling operations, with knowledge of hydraulics and avionics.

“With the Antonov, there is a kneeling capability built into the undercarriage, so we can apply different heights at which we can lock the main deck in order to assist with the loading or unloading. So there are a lot of pipes and pumps and hydraulic equipment,” McClean adds. “It is a production machine, and the sheer amount of equipment dictates that we need a number of people on the aircraft. With ad hoc flights, we don’t have the convenience of a maintenance agreement with the ground handling agent, so we have to be totally self-contained, including spare parts and spare wheels.”

Self-contained and self-handling the AN-124s and IL-76s may be, but it is preferable to use some ground handling equipment at the airport, and at remote airfields or airstrips. “We would always need something on the ground – ideally there would be a forklift as a minimum and preferably also a low-loader – although if necessary we can take those with us,” says McClean. “If we can cooperate with the customer, and get them to use the correct trucks and park them in the right place, we can lift the cargo direct from the trucks direct to the aircraft, without needing anything – or in some cases take the whole truck on the aircraft. We have just delivered a field hospital in that way for a customer in Yemen.”

Although aircraft such as the AN-124 or IL-76 have this capability to self-handle and to fly into the most basic of airstrips, McCLean says they often fly into more developed airports, and there are certain ones that they go to on a regular basis. This allows Maximus to have ground handling agreements already in place with handlers at these airports, complete with service level agreements.

“In fact, even for ad hoc operations, our CAA insists that we have ground handling agreements in place, with SLAs, unless it is an airport that we only fly to very occasionally,” adds McClean. “Every time we go there we would need to check with them whether there had been any changes. We would take their initial inputs as the start of the audit process and until we can get someone on the ground there later.”

And for ad hoc destinations that an airline has never been to before, there is generally no time to visit in advance to scope things out on the ground, and so the airline has to make do with sending over two questionnaires, to establish what is available from the ground handler and the airport operator.

“One of these includes an undertaking that their people can complete this aspect or that aspect, to certain agreed standards. That allows us to do a risk assessment,” says McClean. “Sometimes we do a series of charters. In those cases, to get the ball rolling, we would tend to accept their undertakings for the first flight, and then get someone from that first flight to take a really good look for the subsequent flights.”

But with all flights, there is a comprehensive checklist to go through, including things like the bearing strength and widths of the runways and taxiways, particularly because of the extraordinary nature of some of the aircraft and shipments that Maximus and other outsize aircraft operators fly.

“For example, with the Antonov, we would have to make sure that the airport is happy for us to take up three aircraft parking spaces for the length of time that we will require,” says McClean. “We go into a lot of slot-restricted airports, and we might want to take up several positions for up to 24 hours. That is not convenient for some airports, and so we might have to find a nearby alternative, or use a secondary airport.”

Back-up plans are also essential for other reasons, including things such as weather conditions for airports with limited navigation aids, and political unrest.

“At the moment, there are a lot of countries around this region, the Middle East and North Africa, where the political situation has been changing rapidly, and there are restrictions on where we are able to go,” observes McClean. “We have regular business for one customer in North Africa, and would normally make a stop in Libya, but that is not possible now. We have to go with the flow.

“We are also going into the ‘weather season’ soon in Asia, where it is a very dynamic and rapidly changing process,” he adds. “A lot of the airports do not have category III runways, and so during monsoon, some airports are liable to close with minimal notice. That can sometimes happen while we are in the air, so we then have to look at our secondary alternatives and options, and at whether we can go to the next available airport and arrange trucking from there.”

So, six years into life in the charter and ACMI business, Maximus has learned a thing or two, and is now preparing for the next phase of its expansion. Its fleet is set to increase to 10 or 11 aircraft this year, including a more-than-doubling of its A300 fleet, while the airline is also withdrawing from the Lockheed Hercules market in the coming weeks. The carrier is confident of placing the new aircraft without much trouble, particularly because of its versatility as a feeder aircraft. With many Asian economies continuing to boom, and the high price of oil likely to add further impetus to several economies in the Middle East and Africa, Maximus looks set to continue to be one to look out for.