Emirates is now the world's largest combination carrier in terms of cargo volume (second only to express-carrier Federal Express), and third in terms of freight ton kilometers (FTK), says Menen. While Emirates reported an increase of just 1.7% during its 2012 fiscal year, it saw a 16% increase in volume during the first six months of 2012. Emirates began service in 1985 and now handles more than 35% of the region's air cargo through its SkyCargo operations. For fiscal 2012, SkyCargo recorded $2.6 billion in revenue, an 8.4% increase over fiscal 2011 and 16.2% of the total Emirates Group revenue.
Etihad, which started service in 2004, reported a 21% increase in tonnage carried during the first six months of 2012. The airline moved to 19th in tonnage carried by the world's airlines in 2011 from 25th in 2010.
Qatar Airways, in comparison, is growing rapidly, with almost 200 aircraft on order, including Boeing 777 and Airbus A330-200 freighters. Qatar moved to 11th in tonnage carried in 2011 from 17th in 2010.
Saudia is another important cargo carrier, “although it has a bit more of a traditional approach to the business,” says Didier Lenormand, Airbus's head of marketing for freighter aircraft, “not so much focused on hub activities, with service to countries with large populations compared to population of any of the [Persian] Gulf states that are small.”
Saudia ranks 24th among international carriers for cargo volume. However, most of its cargo goes by freighter—71.1% main deck vs. 28.9% in the lower hold, compared to an average 27.8% by freighters for the Big Three. Saudia's tonnage grew by 13% in 2011 and by 16% in 2010, according to Boeing.
The two other largest cargo carriers in the Middle East, Egyptair and Gulf Air, ranked 47th and 50th, respectively, among the International Air Transport Association's top 50 airlines for freight tons carried.
Overall, airfreight traffic through the Middle East is expected to triple in the next 20 years, although at a reduced rate, according to Airbus's world forecast. Historically, it grew from just under five billion FTKs to just over 10 billion at a rate of 5.9% in the past 20 years, but it is expected to grow at a rate of only 5% to about 30 billion in the next 20 years, increasing by 2.8 times.
Overall, Airbus forecasts the Middle East fleet will increase to 42 midsized and 80 large freighters by 2031 from 19 midsized and 31 large freighters in 2012. However, the number of freighters being operated is not indicative of the market because the predominant percentage of cargo is carried in the bellies of the combination carriers.
While there are numerous reasons for the growth of air cargo in the Middle East, two of the major ones are simply a dedication toward growth by the major airlines and what Menen calls egocentricity. It goes back to the Silk Road concept.
“You have 5.8 billion people within eight hours' flight time [from Dubai]. Extend that up to 14 hours and you have about 6.2 billion. Two-thirds of those are east of [Dubai] and of that, two-thirds are [in] India and China. So that is the basic ingredient of the success of this region, why it has become a major hub,” says Menen.