Even as Air India gears up to fly a soaring number of passengers with its rapidly expanding fleet, it is also spreading its wings in the cargo sector. 

Targeting a bigger market share of international cargo, the airline has deployed six wide-bodied Boeing 777 aircraft in recent months, besides initiatives such as temperature-controlled transport solutions and ‘bonded truck service’ — transport of freight that has been checked and sealed by customs for import or export.

While Indian carriers command around 44 per cent of the country’s international passenger traffic, it is the foreign carriers that dominate its air cargo business with more than 87 per cent share. With a 6.7 per cent share of India’s international air freight in the April-June quarter, Air India was ranked fifth behind Emirates, Qatar Airways, Aerologic and Cathay Pacific.

Now the Tata-owned erstwhile national carrier’s cargo division is undergoing a makeover as it attempts to become more agile, integrated, and responsive to the needs of industry.

Sealed cargo

Delhi is the biggest cargo hub for Air India with flights to the US, Canada, Europe and Australia. It recently launched a feeder service to ferry bonded cargo from different parts of the country to Delhi by road and air, as this would help increase its cargo load on outbound flights from Delhi.

Its bonded truck service currently operates on nine routes, and it aims to gradually increase it to 200 routes.

“The shippers and agents involved in the air cargo trade also stand to benefit from the wider distribution capability that reduces cost of operation, transportation cycle time and overall service level. 

“There is no exclusive partnership with any service provider. There are several reputed and quality bonded trucking operators in India and we would like to work with all as much as possible,” Air India said in a statement.

Pharma payload

It has similarly partnered with pharma containerisation specialist Envirotainer to handle critical temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical products. 

“Equipped with 18 integrated sensors that monitor important aspects during shipping including location, internal and external temperature, battery level, humidity, door openings, cargo loaded, and real-time GPS tracking, the device is said to be the largest and the most technologically advanced container currently available,” Air India said.

With over 7,000 containers, Envirotainer works with more than 100 airlines and 40 logistics companies. 

It says that during 2022 it handled nearly 740 million doses of pharmaceuticals.

Global players

Pharma export cargo is attracting newer initiatives from several global airlines. Last November, Cathay Pacific began offering pharma companies wider packaging choices and expedient ground-handling services.

Apart from temperature-controlled containers, Emirates SkyCargo uses specially designed thermal covers to protect delicate cargo from heat, cold, dust and humidity.

To be sure, bonded truck services and temperature-controlled solutions are nothing new. Nearly two decades ago, bonded truck services were launched to assist exporters, as also migrant Indian workers in West Asia who wanted to send cargo to their home towns. 

Various international airlines and the airports in Bengaluru and Delhi have tie-ups with truck operators to provide bonded cargo service.