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Emirates' Sultan optimistic but realistic about 2014

By John W. McCurry on October 30, 2013

Nabil Sultan describes his first months on the job as head of cargo at Emirates SkyCargo as challenging as he develops an understanding of market dynamics and demand across the globe. Sultan was named divisional senior vice president in June following the retirement of Ram Menen.

Sultan has spent the last 23 years with Emirates on the passenger side. His previous position with the airline was as divisional senior vice president for revenue optimization and distribution. A graduate of the University of Portland, Oregon, he began his career with Emirates in the IT department.

“Of course, one of the key challenges is ensuring the hub is managed efficiently, and there was a huge learning curve to understand exactly how things work,” Sultan says. “To be honest, the cargo business at Emirates has been well-established over the years, and there has been sufficient investment in infrastructure and aircraft and other resources. The transition has been quite smooth so far. There have been a few hiccups, but nothing major.”

Sultan’s observation about air cargo’s prospects in 2014 is cautiously optimistic.

“We are tracking the world economy, which has a major impact on our business,” Sultan says. “I don’t want to be pessimistic, but so far this year the European, and the American market to a certain extent, has been flat. We have not seen an indication of a total recovery yet, but there are some blips of markets doing well for awhile and then going down. July was good, August was not and September was good.”

Sultan says some markets, including some areas of Africa, have been “quite robust.” To a degree, developing markets have compensated for stagnant traditional markets.

“There are indications that 2014 will probably be a little better,” he says. “At least, that’s what everyone hopes. Fuel costs continue to be extremely volatile, so we hope that fuel will stabilize, and that will help the industry in a much greater way. Of course, if the economy continues to rebound, we will start to see more growth as consumer confidence goes up. We will see how it goes.”

The other industry challenges are familiar: overcapacity in established markets and political obstacles in creating new routes in some developing regions of the world.

“Some markets that offer business opportunities also have challenges politically,” Sultan says. “That’s quite sad because new routes can only improve the economies of those countries by building a bridge to the rest of the world. Overcapacity in some markets doesn’t help anybody. Eventually, we hope there will be some rationalization and reduction of capacity in those markets.”

Construction is progressing on Emirates SkyCargo’s new cargo terminal and supporting facilities at Dubai World Central Al Maktoum International Airport. This will become home to Emirates’ freighter operations in May 2014. Sultan says the expansion is greatly needed because Emirates is handling nearly 2 million tonnes annually at its Dubai International Airport facility.

“The investment and infrastructure is coming at the right time for us,” Sultan says. “The hub is quite critical and is one of the key elements that supports our fleet and network expansion. It will have the latest equipment for cargo handling. It will be a blessing for us.”

The new 700,000-sq.-m. (7,539,000-sq.-ft.) terminal will have dedicated facilities for pharmaceuticals and perishables. It will also have 46 truck docks. Sultan says cargo will flow easily on a 24/7 basis from Dubai International Airport, which will be home to Emirates’ belly cargo operation.

“We are lucky to be geographically located in almost the center of the world,” Sultan says. “Dubai is a two- or three-hour flight to any of the cities of the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent. We are close to Africa and Europe, especially Eastern Europe. That gives us huge opportunities to access emerging markets when other, traditional markets slow down.”

While most of Sultan’s career with Emirates has been outside the cargo realm, he says he has always had contact with cargo. He says he finds air cargo to be exciting and interesting. He acknowledges that transporting goods and services across the world is a great responsibility and says he especially enjoys the social responsibilities that sometimes come with that task.

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