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Air cargo powers Sochi Olympics

By John W. McCurry on February 13, 2014

Planning for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, took air cargo charter company Air Partner out of its normal modus operandi. Normally, the UK-based company arranges aircrafts after it contracts with a client to move cargo. After studying opportunities related to Sochi, Air Partner opted for the opposite.

“We found the aircraft first in this case,” says Mike Hill, regional freight manager, Germany, for Air Partner. “It sounds foolish, but it comes with a reason. Prior to last year, a lot of clients were asking about the possibility of charters to Sochi. A lot of forwarding companies wanted to send stuff to Sochi, but no one wanted to take the gamble on a charter.”

So Air Partner secured 12 charters from Frankfurt to Sochi via AirBridgeCargo. Hill says a 747 was the most economical cargo charter to arrange to Sochi. The charters drew lots of interest from around the globe. Frankfurt was chosen as the departure point because that is a hub for AirBridgeCargo and the carrier wouldn’t have problems arranging slots. It is also a prime spot for transshipments, he says.

After Aeroflot ceased freighter service last November, AirBridgeCargo became the only cargo operator that could fly into Sochi, Hill says. Air Partner launched its new product, the Sochi Express, during Air Cargo Europe last June. Interest was slow in developing, but picked up steam near the end of the year as the event approached.

“Frankfurt to Sochi in 3.5 hours was the perfect solution for many clients,” Hill says. “We fit the bill for companies that didn’t have enough cargo to commit to a whole 747. The only alternative was to send by truck. Seafreight was also an option, but that takes time and the Sochi port was closed from December due to security, so that option was out. The other option was to fly to Moscow and truck in to Sochi, but that was also a restrictive option.”

Hill describes Sochi International Airport as “provincial” and in a remote area that had not had the need for infrastructure improvements for many years.

“We did our site visit last year to the airport and discovered it was very much a Cold War airport,” Hill says. “Their high loader could only handle 4.5 tonnes, so any pallet we shipped had to be less than that. In most cases, that wasn’t a problem. Later, the airport upgraded its equipment so we were less restricted.”

With cargo facilities scarce at the Sochi airport, the 100 tonnes of cargo on each plane had to be collected quickly, so cargo handling had to get underway as soon as planes landed.

Products shipped on the Sochi Express included sensitive timing devices for various events, bobsleds, TV equipment and Olympic merchandise.

Hill says while the Sochi Express was a bit of a gamble, it was accomplished without major glitches.

“Brokers don’t usually secure capacity and then secure business. It has gone well. There were a few minor schedule changes, but our clients still got their cargo by their deadlines.”

With the Olympics charter successfully under its belt, Hill says Air Partner is contemplating a similar arrangement for the FIFA World Cup set for this summer in Brazil.

By the beginning of January, AirBridgeCargo had performed more than 30 charter flights. These included 747s and 737s and AN-124-100, IL-76TD-90VD and AN-12 freighters.

Volga-Dnepr Group’s participation in the Sochi Games dates back to July 2007, when the International Olympic Committee gathered in Guatemala to decide which city would be chosen to host the 22nd Winter Olympic Games in 2014. Volga-Dnepr Airlines transported a 63-tonne ice rink that featured in Sochi’s final bid presentation.