It may be dominated by the undeniably imposing freighters in the static display, but perhaps the most intriguing exhibit in the Airshow’s Cargo Vilage this year comes from AirBridgeCargo Airlines, which has replicated elements of its new Moscow digital control tower here. The tower sits at the heart of ABCA’s new vision for handling special cargoes – a quickly growing element of their market – and, the company says, the digitized, data-centric approach holds the key to the carrier’s future. 

“What airlines have been doing for years in monitoring their airplanes and passenger connectivity, we’re now doing live for cargo connectivity,” says Robert van der Weg, VP for sales and marketing at ABCA’s parent, the Volga-Dnepr Group. VDG is able to do this because the company has equipped its Boeing 747 fleet with sensors and data-transmission systems to enable real-time monitoring of temperature-controlled or other special cargoes throughout the duration of all flights. 

“Five years ago this would have been impossible,” van der Weg says, highlighting two factors that have made the concept viable. “First, the aircraft manufacturers – in our case Boeing – had to certify specific equipment so it can be used on the airplane. Second, of course, we had to develop the ability to do something with these data. You have to have the ability to filter these data and present them in an intelligent way – otherwise you get lost.”

There are operational benefits that can be realized, but those are not the primary reason for the extensive investment the system has required.

“If you can anticipate problems that otherwise you’d have to handle at the last minute, then there’s some efficiency gains,” van der Weg says. “But, more importantly, you’ve become more effective in the market – and we improve our traffic mix. It’s like a passenger airline starting with loads of economy-class passengers, then starting a business class, getting better at it and getting a reputation for it, then investing in the onboard entertainment and the catering.”

The business model for this upper-class cargo service is rather different to a passenger carrier’s, though. Van der Weg says the company focuses “first and foremost on cargoes that are sensitive to mishandling, that are very quality-conscious,” singling out pharmaceuticals as a category where monitoring to this level of detail can be of very great interest to customers. Sometimes a suitably equipped aircraft will be flying a load where this level of monitoring would be unnecessary – so not every flight will have customers paying business-class prices. Instead, it is by using the capability as a point of differentiation to help attract and retain new customers, and encourage extant ones to extend their working relationship with the carrier, that the Group is seeing a return on its investment. 

“We also invest in processes on the ground, in special staff to deal with pharma shipments – we’re making investments across the board,” van der Weg points out. “But we believe that if we’re able to increase our share of niche and special cargoes on our airplanes, that’s a positive trend for us. We’ve done the analysis, and if we’re able to increase our yield by, let’s say, 5 cents per kilo on average because of measures like these, that means US$25 million on our P&L [profit-and-loss account] on an annual basis.

“In the last two years we’ve seen a tripling of what we call niche cargo – pharmaceuticals; off-size express shipments – on our network,” he adds. “We also see that the market responds to [the investments]. They like what they see. So it’s definitely paying off for us.”