Volga-Dnepr Group / Press-center / Media Coverage

Thinking Big

10/17/2008

The Volga-Dnepr Airline Company was established in 1990. The fleet comprises 10 AN-124-100 Ruslan aircraft and 14 IL-76s, including two modernised IL-76TD-90VD versions of the aircraft that have been approved by ICAO for worldwide operations. When one of these outsize freighters lands, it certainly makes its presence felt. Trevor Sweeting is the Operations Manager at Volga-Dnepr and his job is to make sure there are no surprises on the ground.

There is nothing like the arrival of a Russian freighter to challenge a cargo handling operation. And let's remember, these outsize freighters are operated on an ad hoc charter basis so there is nothing habitual about the loading or unloading of these giants. But it is for Sweeting to ensure that the arrival of a Volga-Dnepr charter flight < carrying outsize freight or just extreme < quantities of standard freight is handled 1 as if it were an everyday occurrence and ; that the aircraft is turned and despatched in a timely manner.

"Sometimes the aircraft is bulk load- i ed - small boxes from floor to ceiling i that need individual offloading - but that 1 is fairly unusual. Most of it tends to be : outsize cargo and a lot of that is vehicles. 1 For these we open the nose of the aircraft < and just drive them or winch them off, explains Sweeting. We also have internal cranes on the aircraft but it is the load that tends to determine what equipment and ground support we need."

If the load is palletised, forklifts are required. "In that case, we would normally request the agent to provide four forklifts: two inside the aircraft bringing the load to the front ramp and two outside the aircraft bringing the load from the front ramp onto the trucks or cargo dollies," comments Sweeting. lines of communication are key but the extent of hand-holding from Volga-Dnepr's perspective depends veiy much on whether or not this is a new port of call, and whether the handling agent knows the charter operator and its operation. "If this is a new location, we have to talk the handlers through the whole procedure - which may involve sending them diagrams of the aircraft and of the cargo," he explains.

"With the bigger offloads, we use either extension ramps at the front of the aircraft or the internal crane at the back," says Sweeting. "In those cases, we generally do not need an awful lot of ground support equipment. We are fairly self-sufficient. The handler then has more of a coordination function. Again, we would talk to them in advance and get the customer involved in talking to them too."

And let's not forget, a small fleet of trucks might be required to carry away freight from an outsize freighter and each of those truck drivers will have to be associated with a vehicle registration number and will be issued with an air-side pass. Escorts may also be necessary. All this has to be accomplished in advance so that last minute security clearance is not necessary.

Handling at Volga-Dnepr is predominantly outsourced. "There are one or two locations in Russia where we have people on the ground but, other than that, all of it is outsourced," remarks Sweeting.

Given the preference for outsourcing, how does Volga-Dnepr go about handler selection? Sweeting responds: "We consider a combination of lots of different issues. For the network system [Airbridge Cargo - the sister scheduled operation] the network handlers work well for us." However, Volga-Dnepr is an ad hoc charter operator and so it looks at the locations at which the network handlers operate and compares that network with the airports its outsize freighters are likely to visit. The world's key cargo hubs are obvious destinations for the outsize freighter operator; and locations like Houston and the European cargo hubs will be cargo friendly and likely to offer the services of the larger network handlers.

"We do look to do deals with the big-guys but a lot of contract negotiation is based on history," Sweeting points out. Also important is familiarity with these types of freighters; and price is obviously an important factor. "If we have used a handler before and we were happy with them, we would usually stick with them," he confirms.

"If this is a new location for us, we would usually look at who the agents are at that airport and seek price comparisons. Then we would find out what they have to offer and check they have the right equipment," he says. Contracting out services to fill in gaps in expertise or equipment availability can ultimately equate to a messy service which is an unattractive proposition for Volga-Dnepr. Price is not necessarily the determining factor; but it is usually the starting point. Volga-Dnepr has developed loading equipment for non standard loads. This includes extension ramps which are used for very large pieces of freight where the internal crane cannot be used. "These ramps are used to narrow the angle between the ground and the front of the aircraft," Sweeting explains. "In conjunction with these, we use a rail system and loading platforms. We also have a double deck car rack system which is, again, something we have developed ourselves."

Of course aircraft turn around times are always vital and when an outsize freighter turns up on the parking area, time is even more of the essence. "The most pressure comes from us," Sweeting says. "We usually work a very tight schedule. For an offload, generally there is going to be a crew rest involved, which means a minimum ground time of 15 hours. But sometimes we simply offload and travel on to the next destination. It is important for us to keep to our schedule."

Nevertheless, a Volga-Dnepr freighter is likely to take up a lot of parking-space and so most airports are keen for the carrier to stick to its schedule. "Most of the airports at which we are going to feel time pressure are slot-restricted airports. So long as we stick to our approved slot times, we do not have problems," he comments. "It is a two way reassurance process and the planning stage is the most important part." When asked whether the third-party freight handling community is able to supply the outsize cargo carrier the services it needs in order to continue to outsource this part of its operation, Sweeting responds: "It is there. We have been operating these aircraft for a long time and to a lot of destinations. It is very unusual for us to arrive at a destination where there are no handlers who are familiar with the characteristics of the aircraft. So long as we reassure the handlers about the way in which the operation will be carried out and what they will have to provide, all runs smoothly." He reminds us that Volga-Dnepr carries on board with the cargo a team of technicians who are responsible for the overall loading and offloading of the freight. "They are English speaking and will liaise with the handling agent on the ground. We also have a flight manager on board who is English speaking and he also liaises with the handling agent as soon as the aircraft doors are opened."

Of course with ad hoc cargo, there are bound to be a few surprises but, as Sweeting-says, efficiencies come with planning.

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