Larger than life: shipping colossal cargo

  • May 2, 2013

If Air Charter Service ships outsize cargo, it’s usually because something went wrong.

“I’m sure when 99 percent of projects start, the plan is they’re going to send it all by ocean freight,” Justin Lancaster, group cargo director at Air Charter Service, says. “Our business is very much ad hoc…Most customers don’t inherently want the charter because they see it as an expensive way to do things.”

Lancaster looks outside his office window and spots about 15 men, all working to move some piece of outsize cargo to its destination.

Construction projects, power stations, combat zones, military maintenance centers – they demand cargo such as heavy equipment, tanks, helicopters and power generators that is bigger than the average box.

Nobody argues that shipping by ocean costs less than shipping by air. That’s why Air Charter Service and many other forwarders and airlines step in when something goes awry.

Sometimes, a piece of equipment for a construction project breaks, and it needs to be replaced quicker than sea freight can deliver it.

“If a tractor is down on a multimillion-dollar hotel project, they’re not going to wait three days to get it there,” Johnny Hobayan, Aloha Air Cargo vice president of sales and marketing, says. “They’re going to pay whatever they need to get it there today so they can resume construction.”

Other times, a construction project falls behind schedule, and it needs to receive its equipment fast or otherwise face a penalty charge that may prove more expensive than using airfreight, Lancaster says.

Sometimes, moving cargo by sea could prove a headache if it is intended for a land-locked destination.

“At the end of the day, it all boils down to time and cost,” Lancaster says. “While things sound expensive or look expensive, it depends on the circumstances and the situation.”

Besides time and the prospect of penalty fees, Dmitry Grishin, vice president sales at Ruslan International, says another factor that determines whether outsize cargo ends up on aircraft is security.

“Insurance and the security of cargo in terms of being damaged by the external atmosphere like winds and wet conditions while traveling by ship,” Grishin says.

Ruslan is an outsize air cargo charter specialist organized by Volga Dnepr Group and Antonov Airlines.

And then there’s the military sector. During the past 10 years, countries have spent millions of dollars on the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan.

“Now the budgets are draining, and as a result, we can see the military part of the business is contracting,” Grishin says. “At the same time, the civil segment of the market does not compensate for the highly rapid decline of the military segment.”

From 2011 to 2012, the military segment declined by 20 percent, he says.

He lists off other sectors that use outsize cargo. He says aerospace has grown in the double-digits during the past three years, pointing to factors such as development programs across the world and space launches in Russia, France and China. There are many oil shipments to Africa and Southeast Asia, where projects abound, Grishin says. There’s a surge in demand for heavy machinery in China and South Korea.

Hobayan talks about military movements – think of all the helicopter blades – along with the construction industry and live animals such as cows and mules. But the most frequent outsize shipment of Honolulu-based Aloha Air Cargo, which moves 90 percent of its freight inter-island, is surfboards and paddleboards.

Hobayan sees surfboards, which can reach up to 12 feet long and 30 inches wide, on a daily basis. And for once, weather works in air cargo’s favor, pushing the surf industry to Aloha Air Cargo when a swell approaches.

“If there are waves that are coming on Tuesday, you don’t have time to put it on the barge, and sometimes the lead time on weather patterns is short,” Hobayan says. “You’ll have two or three days, but by the time you plan the trip, you have a day to get your board there, and you want to be ready for the swell. That kind of drives that whole surf industry to us. They have to have their stuff there when they need it.”

Have to – those seem to be the key words of the outsize cargo market where time is king. Helicopter parts, aircraft engines, live animals, perishable goods – this smattering of objects need to arrive at their destinations as fast as possible.

“You’re not gonna put those on a barge and wait two to three days just because they can’t,” Hobayan says. “You need to have that there as soon as possible.”

But the future for outsize cargo is not clear.

Hobayan says in the past three years, the amount of oversize cargo has decreased because people understand their transportation options such as trucking and ocean freight better.

“The urgent shipments, the military shipments, that are required to be there in an expedited timeframe will continue to move through us. Same thing with live animals and perishable goods,” he says.

Because most of Hawaii’s perishable goods come from outside the state, it remains a healthy sector.

Lancaster says the financial crisis forced a lot of large construction projects to go on hold. Though some have gotten underway again, years could go by before the airfreight industry sees the payoff.

Lancaster says many times, managers of projects tell Air Charter Service that in a year or two, they may need the company’s services.

But in general, the outsize cargo market will increase this year, he says.

“I think this year, next year, probably an increasing upward trend as these projects come to fruition and then beyond that, there’s always going to be a market for outsized equipment to be moved,” he says. “That’s no doubt.”

Grishin says the outsize cargo industry is more insulated from economic problems in the short-term, but in the long-term, uncertainty reigns. He says the biggest question still unanswered pertains to the military.

“Given the fact that we have relied heavily over the last 10 years plus on the military side of business and given the fact that by 2014, end of 2014, 2015, most of the countries committed themselves to ending their missions in Afghanistan,” he says. “What will replace this large chunk of business which we used to have?”

The outsize cargo market continues to evolve, and questions loom over this little corner of the airfreight industry. But in the midst of it all, Grishin talks about the contentment he receives from his work – the delight in figuring out how to ship a fuselage or a wing section or anything else too enormous for a standard container.

“On a daily basis, you get all these wonderful pieces which you say cannot be loaded, but then you start working with a team of experts to get on the solution and essentially a few weeks down the line, you find the solution,” he says. “This is the joy of our work.”

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