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On Monday, 16 March 2020, Emirates flight EK 2503 took off from Dubai to Kuwait. Although operated on a Boeing 777-300ER passenger aircraft, EK 2503 carried no passengers but about 34 tonnes of bellyhold cargo that was urgently required in Kuwait.
It was the first time in the history of its operations that Emirates had operated a cargo only flight on a passenger aircraft. Coming just four days after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), EK 2503 would be the first of more than 27,800 cargo flights to be operated by Emirates SkyCargo in the year that followed as the cargo carrier worked ceaselessly to keep communities across the world connected to the essential medical and food supplies they needed during the pandemic.
Nabil Sultan, Emirates Divisional Senior Vice President, Cargo said: “It has been exactly one year since what was considered impossible in the air cargo industry became not just a reality but a strong operational pillar for Emirates SkyCargo. Prior to the pandemic, nearly two thirds of our total cargo was transported in the bellyhold of our passenger flights. With increasing flight suspensions and restrictions on passenger travel imposed due to COVID-19 in early March 2020, we could foresee a situation where there would no longer be adequate cargo capacity available in the market to transport essential supplies.
“In order to bolster the cargo capacity offered by our 11 Boeing 777 freighters and make sure that we could meet the urgent demand for goods such as PPE, ventilators and other pharmaceutical goods and food supplies from across the world, we proactively made a radical and innovative plan to utilise our widebody passenger aircraft to operate cargo only flights. We trialled this passenger freighter concept with a flight to Kuwait on 16th March last year. Over the next few weeks, as regular passenger operations were completely suspended, we started increasing our passenger freighter flights to a point where we had close to 90 passenger aircraft being used for cargo operations.
“Our team worked tirelessly to flesh out a new business model from the ground up- seeking approvals from authorities, drawing up a new route network, drafting new operational and safety guidelines and speaking to our customers around the world – to make sure that as a socially responsible carrier, we were able to maintain essential supplies of cargo into markets and at the same time sustain exports around the world in challenging economic conditions.
“Our passenger freighter strategy has been the backbone of our operations during the pandemic transporting cargo to more than 125 destinations across six continents. It has showcased our resilience as a global facilitator of trade and supply chains. With resumption and growth in passenger operations, we have started gradually moving towards our traditional model but our passenger freighters continue to remain a strong component of the COVID-19 pandemic response.”
To meet the global demand for transport of PPE and essential supplies, Emirates SkyCargo followed up on the introduction of passenger freighter services with further innovations including the loading of cargo on passenger seats and in overhead bins inside the passenger cabin and introducing ‘mini freighters’ which were Boeing 777-300ER aircraft with seats removed from Economy Class to make more room for transporting cargo. Emirates SkyCargo currently has 16 Boeing 777-300ER mini-freighters for cargo operations.
Emirates SkyCargo has operated more than 27,800 cargo only flights on passenger aircraft during the last year. These flights have helped transport more than 100,000 tonnes of essential supplies including PPE, COVID-19 testing kits, ventilators, pharmaceuticals, vaccines and food. This is the equivalent of cargo carried over 1000 full flights on the Boeing 777 freighter aircraft.
Emirates SkyCargo’s flights helped maintain food security in a number of import reliant markets while also providing an income stream to communities dependent on agricultural exports. The air cargo carrier also operated a record number of charter flights using passenger aircraft exclusively to transport cargo.
Emirates SkyCargo has been leading the global air cargo industry’s response for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. The air cargo carrier has set up a dedicated GDP certified airside hub in Dubai for COVID-19 vaccines and has also partnered with leading Dubai based entities and with UNICEF for the rapid transport of COVID-19 vaccines to developing nations through Dubai. Emirates SkyCargo’s passenger freighters have also played a key role in the transport of COVID-19 vaccines.