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Inside Emirates SkyCargo's Dubai facility - we saw how air cargo is keeping the global supply chain running

Business Insider US
Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.
  • Emirates SkyCargo is one of many cargo airlines benefitting from the boom in air freight amid the shipping crisis. 
  • Thousands of boxes and containers pass through SkyCargo's Dubai facility daily, with a variety of goods ranging from household items to the Covid-19 vaccine. 
  • A fleet of 10 dedicated SkyCargo freighters and Emirates' passenger planes transport the packages around the globe. 
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

Air freight is by far the fastest method of moving packages and goods long distances between continents. But the speed and efficiency of moving goods by air also come with a high cost that many shippers have not been willing to pay, until now.

An Emirates SkyCargo Boeing 777-200 Freighter.

A crisis raging in the ocean shipping industry is only bolstering the case for air freight, forcing companies to loosen their purse strings when it comes to getting their goods to market.

Touring the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.


An item that might take an ocean liner a week to transport across the globe might only take a cargo plane the better part of a day to move the same distance. And with port congestion plaguing US ports from California to Georgia, some goods might find themselves on a ship for the better part of a month, if not longer.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Delays in ocean shipping and an overall decrease in international passenger flights on which cargo is moved have driven up the prices to ship freight by air.

A Boeing 747 cargo plane.

Cargo and passengers airlines alike have been cashing out in a classic case of supply and demand, while also spending billions to purchase new planes and convert former passenger jets into freighters.

Converting a Boeing 767-300ER to a cargo plane.


We went behind the scenes with Emirates SkyCargo, the freight division of Middle Eastern mega carrier Emirates, at its Dubai cargo hub to see how thousands of packages are transported every day from the furthest reaches of the globe to the doorstep of consumers.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Dubai International Airport is one of the many gateways to the Middle East, through which thousands of travelers will pass daily en route to hundreds of destinations across the globe.

Flying on an Emirates A380 from New York to Dubai.

But opposite its glitzy passenger terminal is a lesser-seen but equally important terminal that moves thousands of boxes and containers every day, helping keep global supply chains running smoothly.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Just as Emirates' passenger planes transport people to, from, and through Dubai, its SkyCargo division does the same. Away from passenger view, it's one of the least glamorous aspects of the aviation industry and one that not many expected to be in the public spotlight.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

"It has taken a center stage simply because I think the world is awakening to the importance of the supply chain and logistics," Nabil Sultan, division senior vice president of Emirates SkyCargo," told Insider at the Dubai Airshow 2021 in November, where air cargo was a primary focus.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Emirates' freighter aircraft help move goods from what's known as the "world's factory," or the regions of the world that make most of its products and goods including China, Vietnam, and India, Sultan said.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Those regions require more air cargo capacity than Emirates' passenger aircraft could provide, spurring the need for a standalone cargo division for its aircraft.

Emirates Airbus A380

Once in Dubai, goods are either delivered to customers in the region or transferred onto other aircraft bound for places like Africa, Europe, the Americas, or other Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Every one of Emirates' aircraft, split between the passenger and cargo divisions, can carry freight.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Emirates SkyCargo has 10 dedicated aircraft in its fleet comprised solely of the Boeing 777-200 Freighter. And during the pandemic, unneeded aircraft from the passenger side have acted as makeshift freighters, with packages placed on top of seats in addition to the cargo hold.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

More aircraft are on the way as Emirates just purchased two new Boeing 777F planes and is having four of its Boeing 777-300ER aircraft converted to freighters by Israel Aerospace Industries in a billion-dollar combined deal.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

One Boeing 777-200F aircraft had just arrived from Hong Kong during our visit. Cargo unloaders descended first on the rear of the aircraft, with one focusing on the upper deck and another on the belly hold.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

The 777-200F has a rear cargo door through which all upper deck cargo is loaded and unloaded. It takes around 30 seconds for the cargo to be taken off the plane and lowered to ground level, where it's put on a dolly for transport.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Once the rear section is unloaded, the team of around 10 ground handlers unloads the forward section. Unloading both sections at once presents a weight and balance issue that could cause the aircraft to become either nose or tail-heavy, which can possibly result in damage.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Each pallet can hold a maximum of 5,000 kilograms of freight if it's being stored in the lower deck of an aircraft. But on the upper deck, pallets can hold a maximum of 6,800 kilograms of freight and can be stacked as high as three meters as the upper deck is larger than the lower hold.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Onboard the aircraft, power-driven units allow ground handling staff to quickly move pallets around the aircraft. Workers don't have to physically push pallets and can let the machines do all the heavy lifting.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Packages aren't the only items that Emirates will carry on its plane. Luxury cars and prized racehorses are also frequent SkyCargo passengers.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

"Flown as booked" is a key performance metric for packages and helps identify weaknesses or issues in the system. If a package doesn't make it onto the flight on which it was scheduled, staff will work to identify why and resolve any issues that might have prevented it from being loaded onto its scheduled flight.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Passengers will always take priority on passenger flights, even if it means leaving some cargo behind to take the next flight.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

"Passengers [are] number one because they are driving the whole fleet of passenger aircraft," Bert Allard Jorritsma, manager of Emirates SkyCargo's special cargo service delivery, told Insider on the tour. "With freighters, we may have a little bit of leeway but we really work on on-time performance."

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Cargo is then taken from the plane to the cargo facility where it will be temporarily stored until its next flight or taken into Dubai for local delivery. Dubai Airports owns the facility but Emirates SkyCargo is the primary tenant.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

The first two floors are dedicated to breaking down and building up pallets that arrive and depart from the facility. A package might arrive on a pallet from Hong Kong, for example, and then get taken out of that pallet and restacked onto another pallet bound for the US.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Each section of the facility services a different type of cargo. One section might be filled with boxes of general cargo while another is dedicated to pharmaceutical goods.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Once pallets and containers arrive at the facility on "dolly trains," or multiple pallets driven by a ground handler, an automated system called the pallet container handling system, or PCHS, takes over and sends them throughout the facility.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Just like how passengers have itineraries that link to a record locator number, packages have air waybills. Multiple air waybills can be stacked in a single container or pallet and air waybill numbers help staff to identify which packages go onto which flight.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Around 80% of goods that arrive in Dubai aren't staying in Dubai and will be transferred to other aircraft. But just like the transit passengers in the commercial terminal, goods won't stay in Dubai long.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Some goods won't even enter the facility and will be transferred to other aircraft directly on the airport's tarmac.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Emirates consolidated its SkyCargo operation at Dubai International Airport during the pandemic to take advantage of the reduced traffic levels at the airport. In the past, SkyCargo operations were split between Dubai International and Al Maktoum International to the south of the city, with around 50 trucks making 350-400 trips bringing cargo between the two airports

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Temperature is a critical factor for the cargo facility, especially as Dubai temperatures can frequently exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

While general cargo doesn't require a specific temperature range, pharmaceutical goods often require lower temperatures. The coldest section of the facility has a temperature range of two degrees Celsius to eight degrees Celsius, or between around 35 degrees Fahrenheit to 46 degrees Fahrenheit, and that doesn't include the freezers that can get even cooler.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

A slightly warmer section, however, has a range of 15 degrees Celsius to 25 degrees Celsius, or around 59 degrees Fahrenheit to around 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

A dual-vendor power supply keeps the air conditioning running and makes these warehouses feel like Antarctica while the sweltering Dubai heat is just beyond its walls. Power outages are rare but in the event that one does occur, a backup diesel generator stands ready to take over to prevent spoilage.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Refrigerated unit load devices provide a "closed door-to-door cool chain" for products that need to be kept at a specific temperature range. The containers are not opened in transit and are simply moved from aircraft to cold storage and back to aircraft.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Temperatures on each container are checked and the batteries that power the refrigeration systems are charged. Once they arrive at their destinations and are emptied, they can be used to store general cargo so that they're not wasting space on freighters when Emirates has to fly them back to their origins.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Emirates was also among the first cargo carriers to fly the Covid-19 vaccine. Early challenges in transporting the vaccine largely centered around temperature and how to keep the vital drugs cold enough during the shipping process and manufacturers and recipients couldn't afford any going to waste.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Security was also a factor as the vaccines were among the most valuable cargo being shipped in 2020 and precautions needed to be taken to avoid theft or mishandling. The first doses to arrive in Dubai were kept in a locked and sealed container.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

"The first were batches obviously were so important that we wanted to exclude any risk of anything happening," Jorritsma said. Cameras and security guards provide security for the entire facility, and anybody that tries to leave the cargo area of the airport has to pass through a security checkpoint.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

More than 500 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have been moved since November 2020, and transporting the drugs is now commonplace with 200 million doses transported in November and October alone. Even still, Covid-19 vaccines are given unique handling codes so that staff can easily identify and monitor the shipments.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

"It changed from a bit of the niche in the beginning to a full-blown supply chain," Jorritsma said. "These days, you're talking about far bigger shipments and you're talking about tons at a time versus, for example, a few hundred kilograms at a time in the beginning."

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Emirates also added more cold storage in June, building an additional 2,600 square meters of space for temperatures ranging between two degrees Celsius and 25 degrees Celsius. The extra space allows for between 60-90 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to be stored at a time.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

When it's time to build pallets up for the next flight, handlers stack boxes one on top of the other like a game of Tetris. Each level of the aircraft has size and shape requirements, and a frame helps handlers know just how to shape each pallet.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Each box is weight limited at 30 kilograms, around the weight of a checked bag. The facility also has platforms that can be lowered as pallets are stacked so that workers don't have to overextend themselves physically when stacking.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Pallets are then wrapped with a waterproof, breathable, and sun reflective material that shields the packages away from the elements, and then netting keeps it all in place.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Other boxes will be stored in solid containers and loaded onto the lower deck of an airplane, similar to how passenger baggage is stacked into containers on some long-haul aircraft.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Massive x-ray machines are able to screen the pallets without having to break them down first. Dubai police and customs agencies have offices in the facility and can quickly check packages that have been flagged.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Finally, it's back off to the tarmac where the pallets will be loaded onto an awaiting aircraft and shipped to their final destination region.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

For the industry veterans at SkyCargo like Jorritsma, the air freight boom has finally brought visibility to their largely unseen piece of the industry

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

"For air freight, specifically, I think it's a clear recognition of all the value it can have," Jorritsma, a former Martinair and Air France – KLM Cargo employee, said. "Although the passengers could not fly, it was seen that there was a very clear demand for air freight because logistics has to go on."

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

SkyCargo, like all cargo airlines, jumped into action soon after the pandemic gripped the world and while travelers were grounded, packages kept on moving. Locked-down societies turned to the internet to purchase necessities to endure pandemic hardships ranging from protective equipment to personal items.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

Just how long the shipping crisis keeps air freight flying high remains to be seen. But Emirates and other cargo airlines are spending billions in the hopes that air freight continues to be lucrative.

Touring the Emirates SkyCargo operation in Dubai.

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