The year is 2006.
We are sitting in a room upstairs in the
Emirates Sky Cargo complex at Dubai International Airport.
SkyCargo is in a cargo transfer facility
that is virtually bursting at the seams.
While the boss of operations, Dave Gould,
sits in a small office (made even more compact by the presence of a
big passenger area DC10 model, recalling his former airline, British
Caledonian), Sunimal Fernando is just down the hall poring over detailed
plans of the big new Mega Terminal that Emirates will build to handle
their global air cargo business via hub Dubai.
In just 20 years, EK has gone from a nobody
in the air cargo business to assuming a leadership role in the Middle
East, and is continuing its climb to becoming one of the biggest fastest
growing and most respected air cargo airlines in the world.
Sunimal has been working
at Emirates Group since 1994, when he came to the Mega Terminal project
as a project manager.
He has lived in Dubai ever since.
Sunimal began his airline career in Sri
Lanka as a GSA with Singapore Airlines, working the front counter on
the import side.
Today, Sunimal Fernando is manager cargo
hub operations and can remember when, moving around the old, vast, non-automated
Emirates Dubai Terminal Complex was best handled with a bike.
When we spoke to him recently he leaned
back in his chair and recalled:
“We opened this place in two phases,
beginning in 2008.
“Now as we approach our fourth anniversary
here, with a business that continues to grow as air cargo from all over
the world transits Dubai, I guess we can take a deep breath and realize
that things worked out quite well.
But Sunimal, who speaks softly, is also
very quick to add:
“It’s not just me or a few
other people that made Mega Terminal number one in the Middle East;
it’s been a lot of people working together that are part of our
story and success here.
“We came to the project at a fairly
advanced stage, the concessions were already in order, so then we had
to do a lot of operations’ planning.
“We are also fully automated in
this terminal, as compared to our old terminal operation.
“So our move was interesting, to
say the least.
we moved in two different phases, we had to have some kind of operation
going on in the old terminal, then half of it had to come here.
“So for a while, we were actually
operating from both terminals.
“When the second half of the facility
was ready, about six months after the first section, the total move
“The migration into this building
began in September 2007 and was completed when the second phase was
ready in 2008.”
Sunimal notes that today Mega terminal
is near capacity and in fact, the former air cargo terminal that was
vacated is still utilized.
“There is still some work we do
in the terminal,” he said.
“The challenge that comes with the
growth that we have is to remain at the top of our game and as close
as possible to the cargo so we always know where the shipments are.
“At the end of the day, our business
solution never varies; it’s about quality and providing a reliable
service that our customers can depend on.
“Today this Mega Terminal plays
into our strength, giving us the ability to move a lot of freight in
a very short period of time.
“In order for us to do that, we
need a lot of operational capacity, processing areas, and storage capacity.
“While we were able to achieve this
through automation, we are able to move a lot of freight in a very short
period of time from flight to flight because we have cargo that moves
within the ramp itself, as well as cargo that transits the warehouse.
“So typically some shipments need
to be quickly broken down and moved onto the outbound flights.
“At any hub operation, getting the
process optimized and moving the freight without problems with regard
to misconnecting flights and other connections is always the challenge.
“With this terminal, we are able
to achieve near 100 percent accuracy—we are very close to that,
plus we also have the ability to maintain the highest quality standards
available anywhere in the industry.
“We focus a lot on training.
“Before we opened Mega Terminal,
we brought staff here in batches and retrained everyone, including select
individuals from different sections, so that they became part of a core
team that was expert in operations here.
“That helped us to do a seamless
“A big part of what happened here
initially was planning our connections.
“It’s no secret that we connect
cargo coming from one part of the world to another part of the world.
“Studying our different lanes of
traffic and then aligning the data that we had with certain sections
of this facility to store cargo coming from one region going into another
allows us to easily break and build in one area, rather than crossing
from one end of the terminal to the other.
“Since about three quarters of the
traffic here is predictable, meaning repeat type business, with Sky
Chain handling our hub operations we have a nice, fully automated terminal
with about 1,400 people working here.
“On a periodic basis, say every
six months, we look at our connection patterns and see if anything has
“As example, there could be situations
where we see traffic from one region building in a certain season, so
in that time we need to make adjustments.
“Seasonal peaks are there: summertime,
holiday time, so those are things we continue to monitor.
“Mega Terminal Dubai has given us
the ability to handle quite a bit more perishables, especially pharmaceuticals.
“We have different types of solutions
for cool chain depending upon the requirement, including, for example,
our the cool dollies, which are closed, refrigerated units that have
a cooling device to maintain required temperatures after we load the
ULD into it.
“We can also store consignments
here in the warehouse at the proper temperatures for extended periods
depending on what the customer needs or what the connection patterns
“I suppose the nicest surprise after
opening this facility is that today we’ve been able to very consistently
maintain a record of about 99.6 percent ‘flown as booked.’
“The surprise is that we thought
migrating from physical handling into automation would be very difficult
to track and trace if something went wrong.
“But what we discovered was that
we were and continue to be able to locate and fix the glitches in a
very short span of time, usually within 24 hours.
“At the core of things around here
is the ability of our teams to easily get into the system.
“For example, in this system, if
a unit is arriving on a flight, we have already pre-announced it into
the system that these are the units expected from this particular flight.
“At the time of inducting, if anything
other than that unit gets into the system the system will give us a
notice that we didn’t announce it, but the added unit was received.
So if there is a mismatch, our teams are able to follow it quickly and
“We’ve been surprised by our
added ability to anticipate these and other events as a benefit of the
“Looking ahead, in order to accommodate
the growth that we have, we are needing to move other terminals, so
one of the challenges for all of us will be to maintain our level of
efficiencies in air cargo handling and operations everywhere.
“But with the commitment of our
people here who continue to deliver a level of expertise and innovation
that is the air cargo standard of the world, I look forward to being
part of a team that is creating new horizons for transport excellence