Exclusive - ABC to Double Freighter Fleet

Currently, AirBridge Cargo operates 14 freighters, with one more Boeing 747-8F coming into the fleet in September and another one some weeks later this year, making it 16 in total before the year is over. In contrast to some competitors that lately abandoned main deck capacity, ABC is eager to grow its freighter fleet, announced the carrier’s Executive President Denis Ilin in an exclusive with CargoForwarder Global at the Munich-held trade show Air Cargo Europe. 

Denis Ilin
Denis Ilin

We asked Denis, which specific all-cargo aircraft ABC is eager to acquire and within what period of time. His immediate response: “My aim is to double our freighter fleet within the next 5 years. Our first choice is Boeing’s largest freighter 747-8F, but if we should get a more attractive offer we also could settle for their 747-400ERFs.”

Lacking pilots
He adds to this that even today ABC is short of capacity. “We have sufficient tonnage to easily operate two more 747Fs.” However, the carrier lacks pilots. Hiring alternatively foreign cockpit personnel, particularly much needed captains has become a tough task ever since the rouble went south, losing much of its former value. “We cannot pay Russian pilots their salaries in roubles and grant remunerations in euros or dollars to their foreign colleagues. This would drive a wedge between our flight deck people,” Denis explains. But there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel, with a greater number of young flight academy licensed applicants starting their cockpit career.

Coming back home
Denis took up his post as Executive President of ABC in August of 2013, after spending some years as Head of Aviation at Russian holding Basic Element. It was a return to his former employer, whom he left in 2008 after making significant contributions to the establishment of ABC in different top-level management roles. In his new assignment he’s responsible for increasing the carrier’s quality, punctuality, competitiveness as well as growing its international business.
“When I came back to ABC I experienced a different airline. It had developed from a start-up to a fully-fledged global player,” he states. However, despite the high engagement of staff in day-to-day issues the service offered to the clients was not the way Denis wanted it to be. “Our biggest competitor is belly-hold cargo. That’s why we ought to offer a similar service level as the passenger airlines do in terms of operational reliability and on-time performance,” he states.

Routine kills innovations and curiosity
Meanwhile, this has been achieved, he claims. “We are assuring our clients 48 hour transport duration from the delivery of the goods to the departure airport to the pick-up of their shipments at destinations we serve.” Quite a step that must be seen against the background that in 2013 when Denis took office, ABC offered the market 190 connections which ever since have shot up to 630 today, including road feeder services.
Helpful in meeting the targets set by the management for the operational performance of the carrier is the fleet of Boeing 747-8Fs (6), B-400ERF’s (5) and B-400Fs (3) that in total have an average age of 5 years. This fairly young fleet that operates in a technically flawless manner is the pillar for offering reliable and punctual services to the market. “When I started I had to convince our own people that reliability has to stand on top of our agenda, changing their mindsets and getting them out of the routine, because routine is the enemy of innovation.”
“Customers and services come first, he says, and not just the acquisition of aircraft.”
He went on to explain that staff are trained to look at the market from all angles. His opinion is that back in 2013 the carrier laid too much emphasis on day-to-day problems in the operation and not enough time devoted to customer’s needs.

Loading of ABC Boeing 747-400ERF at MUC
Loading of ABC Boeing 747-400ERF at MUC

Concentrating on two major trade lanes
This obviously has worked out well. Today, ABC offers the market tailored solutions. Denis states: “My conviction is that we must be able to fly anything that can be airlifted, fitting size-wise into our aircraft. That’s why we as ABC together with our parent Volga-Dnepr and their fleet of AN-124s have to act like a supermarket, giving customers the right answers to their increasingly diverse and dynamic needs.”

Asked about network enlargement he says that there are some ideas to service Latin America and also Africa but nothing realistic will come up within the next couple of years. Instead, some of the present routes will be more frequented, like Shanghai to Los Angeles via Anchorage or Hong Kong to Los Angeles, for instance. “Basically, we operate on two intercontinental trade lanes: between Europe and Asia via Moscow and Asia and North America.” This network will be enlarged in the years to come.

Atran goes ABC
According to Wolfgang Meier, Volga Dnepr’s Group VP, Marketing and Development the company’s feeder airline Atran will be integrated into ABC, operating in future as ABC Express. This process has been started meanwhile, confirms Wolfgang. Currently, Atran operates 3 P2C converted Boeing 737-400Fs on routes between Europe and Moscow and on domestic Russian courses.
There were rumours that Volga-Dnepr was going to sell off their IL-76 freighters.
This seems not to be the case. Apparently there was an offer to buy them from a Chinese company. It is said that this was turned down by the group management.

Alliances with other carriers is something which is not a fact yet, but in our view certainly something which Denis and his management team may well consider.
The most likely candidate for such an agreement could be Air France / KLM Cargo, if they do away with all freighters in the future. KLM’s combi fleet is slated for withdrawal by latest 2020.
Denis Ilin is not adverse in entering into a discussion with the Franco-Dutch carrier regarding a possible partnership.
But, it has to make commercial and financial sense for both sides.

Wait and see!

Heiner Siegmund  /  John Mc Donagh

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