With the safety checks complete, Capt Oliver Iffert taxis the gleaming new Etihad A330-200F cargo aircraft towards the runway. After a quick wave to the ground crew on the apron, the plane accelerates and rises into the sky above Toulouse in France on its maiden flight to Abu Dhabi International Airport where it will become another vital component of the airline's cargo capabilities.
The A330-200F is the latest addition to Etihad's burgeoning fleet of cargo aircraft it hopes will enable it to carve a bigger slice of business for not only the carrier but Abu Dhabi by strengthening global trade flows. Capt Iffert and his co-pilot Capt Francois Lacombe have been flying an increasing number of cargo flights in recent months as demand steadily builds in Europe and the Middle East for everything from the latest flat-screen TVs to car spare parts.
Etihad carried a company record of 23,000 tonnes of cargo last month. Increased volumes to Pakistan, Australia, China and Bangladesh contributed to more than 30,000 shipments being made. The UAE was the top destination for cargo. "Cargo is not a few tonnes here and there; it's a major part of our business," said Roy Kinnear, the senior vice president of Etihad Crystal Cargo. "There's no sign of the cargo business slowing down."
While Dubai is looking to cement its reputation as a regional trading centre through the cargo facilities offered by the new Al Maktoum International Airport, adding to its existing trade infrastructure at the nearby Jebel Ali Port, Abu Dhabi is also raising its capacity. Phase one of the capital's Khalifa Port is scheduled to open in 2012, replacing the existing main port of Mina Zayed. The new port will have an initial capacity of two million 20-foot equivalent units of containers and nine million tonnes of general cargo. "With the infrastructure projects going on there's enough trade competition for both Abu Dhabi and Dubai," said Michael Tomalin, the chief executive of National Bank of Abu Dhabi. "Dubai represents a bigger part of our trade credit business at the moment but I suspect that will change over the next 20 years."
Etihad has already experienced a 21 per cent growth in cargo tonnage in the year to date compared to the same period last year. From September 1, its latest freighter will begin flights between Abu Dhabi and Beijing, Hong Kong, Tripoli, N'djamena and Nairobi in Africa and Milan and Frankfurt in Europe. In October it will be joined on the route by a second A330-200F, which will arrive from Airbus next month with Etihad taking delivery of a Boeing 777 freighter in June next year.
Etihad has been relying on leasing aircraft for its Etihad Crystal Cargo business arm and operates two Airbus A300-600s and two Boeing MD-11s. The Toulouse-based Airbus says the A330-200F is the most efficient freighter flying. Capable of holding up to 64.9 tonnes of goods, Etihad's A330-200F will be packed with goods on most of its trips. On the first flight on Monday, however, the vast chasm of the cargo hold was almost empty apart from seven tonnes of produce stored at the back of the aircraft in pallets resting on roller-flooring designed to enable quicker loading and unloading of goods. Red onions, leeks and aubergines sealed in cardboard boxes bound for Chad sat alongside boxes containing high-tech electronic goods bound for the Indonesian capital Jakarta, giving a flavour of the diversity of demand the airline aims to tap into.