Heavyweights of air cargo

 Antonov Airlines Antonov An-124-100. Photo courtesy of flickr/ Danner Møller Poulsen
Antonov Airlines Antonov An-124-100. Photo courtesy of flickr/ Danner Møller Poulsen

FreightWaves Market Expert Jesse Cohen provides a behind-the-scenes look at the two of the largest and most unique freighter aircraft flying commercially within the air cargo market, and what’s involved from a logistics standpoint to use them to move large, oversized cargo.

Jesse Cohen has over 35 years of air cargo experience, starting out in freight forwarding and moving on to the airline industry, where he worked in a variety of key commercial management roles at United Cargo, and later, Etihad Cargo and SilkWay West Airlines. Cohen’s work at both passenger and freighter carriers in both headquarters and field leadership roles, along with his exposure to the Houston market, provides a unique perspective. To reach Jesse Cohen:  @FreightWavesAIR 

More than 50 percent of the world’s air cargo trade moves via freighter aircraft. The workhorse fleets involved in handling the majority of the tonnage are the Boeing and Airbus freighter versions of familiar passenger aircraft, including the Boeing 747, 757, 767, 777 and MD11, and the Airbus A330. But cargo comes in all different shapes and sizes, and there are times that even the largest of these aircraft, the Boeing 747-8F freighter, which is capable of carrying up to 130 tons in flight, is just not suited for the load. That is when the choices fall to a series of very unique cargo aircraft, the Antonov AN-124 “Ruslan” and the Antonov AN-225 “Mriya.”

The AN-124 is a four-engine heavy transport originally produced in parallel in the Ukraine and Russia in the 1980s for the Soviet military. A total of 55 aircraft were produced from 1982-2004, but fewer than 20 are in commercial service today. The AN-225 is a six-engine variant of the AN-124, partially based on the same design and using many of the same parts. Production for two AN-225 aircraft was started but only one was fully completed in 1985. It is available for commercial charters and is the largest and heaviest aircraft flying in the world today. There is an ongoing challenge in keeping parts and supplies for the AN-124 and AN-225 fleet fresh, as they are an older generation aircraft produced in two countries that now have tense political relations and some of the original parts are no longer available. There are ongoing efforts to secure alternative manufacturers and supply chains in the West, and to upgrade the aircraft and their systems when feasible.

Why an Antonov? So what type of cargo can the Antonov’s handle that the Boeing 747 freighter cannot? According to operator Volga-Dnepr, several key distinguishing factors drive the need for an Antonov freighter, including wide or long pieces that won’t fit through the nose cargo door or side cargo door of a 747, dense or heavy pieces that exceed the 747’s approved floor bearing weight, multiple tall and rigid structures such as 20-foot ocean containers that exceed the 747’s approved limit, and cargo to or from airfields that lack the aircraft loading and unloading equipment needed for the 747.

The AN-124 was designed for heavy pieces weighing 100 tons, and the AN-225 for individual pieces weighing up to 200 tons. So the Antonov is what you call for complex, special and over-size challenges – large industrial equipment, turbines, compressors, jet engine assemblies, construction machinery, satellites, rockets and their engines, helicopters, aircraft parts, oil and gas equipment, locomotives, other transportation equipment, military equipment, disaster relief supplies, offshore equipment, and all kinds of heavy, long freight.

Some of these shipments may be planned within the normal course of a major project, but many such as AOG (aircraft-on-ground) parts situations, out-of-service plants, offshore rig shutdowns, or natural disasters can develop quickly and need urgent solutions to save lives and money. The FreightWaves SONAR chart below (IPRO.AERO. IPRO.ELEC, IPRO.MACH) provides broad insights into U.S. industrial production of aerospace, transportation, electrical and machinery, some of the key industries whose heavy cargo is regularly shipped using Antonov freighters.

 source: freightwaves sonar
source: freightwaves sonar

Unique loading and unloading: The AN-124 has a unique double fuselage and can load or unload through either the front or rear of the aircraft. Basic equipment on-board the AN-124 includes ramps for rolling cargo on and off, a suspension system that allows the fuselage to “kneel” forward for nose-loading, on-board ceiling-mounted cranes capable of lifting 30 tons without ground equipment, and an on-board winch and pulley system capable of pulling the maximum load onto the aircraft with the support of an external extension rail system. The AN-124 also features a multi-wheel landing gear designed to handle remote, rough-field takeoffs and landings. In contrast, the larger AN-225 loads only through the nose, and is not designed for rough field use.

Typical AN-124 loading methods include: driving vehicles up the aircraft ramp in the front with the aircraft kneeling; double-deck loading for automobiles or other small vehicles; rear door loading from a delivery truck or vehicle, using the on-board 30-ton crane; extending the aircraft ramp while in the kneeling position and using a rail system to meet a delivery vehicle; winching cargo aboard; and using an external crane with the combination of an extended aircraft ramp, on-board winch and external rail system.

 Antonov AN-124 Loading using Ramp. photo courtesy of: Flickr/Alexsander Markin
Antonov AN-124 Loading using Ramp. photo courtesy of: Flickr/Alexsander Markin

And when do you know if you need an AN-225 instead of the AN-124? When the freight is longer and heavier overall. The AN-225 offers an additional seven meters of length (almost 23 feet) within the same aircraft height and width profile, and the ability to carry up to 100 more tons!

Primary operators: Commercially, there are two main operators of the AN-124 and one for the AN-225 that are authorized to operate in the U.S. Antonov Design Bureau has seven AN-124 aircraft (five AN-124-100s and two AN-124-150s) and one AN-225, all with a home base of Kiev, Ukraine. The AN-124-150 has several features that are an upgrade to the AN-124-100s that allow for greater fuel efficiency and payloads. Volga-Dnepr Airlines has a fleet of 12 AN-124-100s and uses a base in Ulyanovsk, Russia, but is in the process of enhancing its operational capabilities in Houston and Leipzig, Germany to base aircraft there.

The business model both companies use is similar to the ocean “tramp steamer” model, where the aircraft flies on a charter basis from one airport to the next, unloads and awaits new charter loads, while trying to minimize non-revenue flying. Crews may be away from their home base for up to 30 days at a time, and sometimes more. As a result, each aircraft must be largely self-sufficient and therefore carries large crews which vary from 11 crew members up to as many as 19. Typically this includes six flight deck members, (pilot, co-pilot, navigator, senior flight engineer, flight engineer and radio operator), with the remaining serving as technicians, load masters and flight managers. Technicians may have their own specialty areas, such as avionics, fueling, engines and loading equipment, to be ready for any issue that may arise on their journey. The upper deck of the aircraft contains rest compartments for the various crew members.

Planning and logistics: These aircraft are secured on a charter basis by freight forwarders, charter brokers, shippers or government organizations. Each shipment is a tailored move based on the needs of the cargo, but typically the airline will provide the airport-to-airport transportation, covering aircraft, crews, fuel, aircraft loading, unloading, navigation and airport fees. The charterer handles all arrangements to get cargo trucked (or otherwise transported) to and from the airports or airfields, warehouse handling, international documentation, packing and any needed cranes.

Given the large size of these aircraft, the cargo itself, and the routes they may need to fly, there is a great deal of planning that goes into every flight. Every move is a project and requires teamwork by multiple departments at each carrier to expedite the necessary approvals from authorities, with time being a critical factor. This includes confirming aviation rights to fly the route, obtaining foreign government approvals, checking airport runway, taxiway and cargo area capabilities on both ends of the route (plus at refueling stops and alternative airports), setting up crew handling, aircraft servicing, catering, crew transport, and coordinating with cargo handlers or fixed base operators (FBOs) at origin and destination. Work also must occur in parallel with the customer. Cranes and additional supervisory staff must be arranged and receive airport approvals to be on airport ramp areas, insurance coverage confirmed, and suitable work areas found on airport grounds away from other aircraft or taxiways for any long or heavy pieces needing long work areas to load through the nose. Cargo may need additional crating or packaging by the shipper for safe lift and transport. Fire and rescue facilities need to be present at each airport and may need to be specially arranged for remote destination airfields. While AN-124s have flown over the years to many airports around the world, the AN-225 is larger and has seen fewer airports, so an airport survey may need to be done to ensure runways, taxiways and parking areas can handle an aircraft of this size.

 the One-of-a-Kind 6-Engine Antonov AN-225. photo courtesy of: Flickr/Panvil Vanka
the One-of-a-Kind 6-Engine Antonov AN-225. photo courtesy of: Flickr/Panvil Vanka

Commercial strategy: Pricing the product as a solution for the customer is also very tailored, based on aircraft availability, size and complexity of the load, potential for repeat moves, and flight distance and routing. Fuel is a major cost item for any airline, and with any of the Antonov aircraft can be 35 percent or more of the charter cost. An AN-124-100 with a full load by weight can fly four hours before refueling, so several stops may be needed for a trans-Atlantic crossing from the U.S. to Europe, and more for longer routes. A lighter weight shipment needing fewer stops, and therefore less fuel and time, would presumably be less costly. While neither carrier will divulge too many pricing details, it’s not uncommon anecdotally to hear that the cost of AN-124 charter ranging from $700,000 to over $1 million for trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific charter flights from the U.S. We can only imagine the AN-225 would be quite a bit higher.

Both Antonov and Volga-Dnepr cite impressive track records and deep experience in working closely with customers on unusual and urgent moves around the globe. Both carriers see Houston with its oil and gas industry base as being the natural home for most U.S.-origin charter opportunities. Antonov sees itself as a smaller fleet with a very experienced team that thoroughly know their aircraft capabilities and that seeks to deliver very personalized service to its customers, such as round-trip charters for AOG aircraft parts (i.e. fly a new engine in, stay on site to fly the engine needing repair back). At Volga-Dnepr, the AN-124 is a larger fleet and part of a larger corporate air freight grouping that includes Ilyushin IL-76, Boeing 737 and 747 freighters. Volga-Dnepr seeks to be a “solutions provider” across its overall fleet for its customers, according to Vincent Ryan, Vice President North and South America for Volga-Dnepr Group.

Graham Witton, London-based Managing Director for Antonov Airlines, noted that what was most interesting about working with both of these aircraft was “you never know what your next load will be.” He said that the largest commercial movement ever flown on the AN-225 was 247 metric tons from Prague to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. A demonstration flight flew 253 tons. The largest single piece ever flown on the aircraft – a gas power station generator – was 189.98 tons (nearly 419,000 pounds) with its floor spreading rack, from Frankfurt to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. And there have been several shipments with pieces exceeding 100 tons on the AN-124.

Trucking: From a trucking perspective, these charter movements really depend on the nature of the cargo. They can involve any variety of flatbed or more specialized equipment for large and heavy pieces, most often arranged by the forwarders and charter brokers, or in some cases by the shippers themselves.