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Fear of flying: with financial alarm bells ringing for air freight companies in the Middle East, Maximus Air Caro has turned the transport of horses into a highly profitable business.
Jaime Puebla
Fear of flying: with financial alarm bells ringing for air freight companies in the Middle East, Maximus Air Caro has turned the transport of horses into a highly profitable business.

Equine flights buck business gloom

Heavy lift aircraft remain in demand as they ferry unusual cargo other carriers shun.

Cargo, says Fathi Buhazza, doesn't usually complain. But his company, Maximus Air Cargo, specialises in ferrying freight that not only fusses at handlers, it also tends to kick them. On a recent flight, Maximus's crew gingerly arranged 13 prized horses on an aircraft for the seven-hour flight to Paris. The animals had just competed in the 160km President's Cup in Abu Dhabi, and one stallion was especially skittish. Dr Alberic Thery, a senior veterinary surgeon at the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club, realised a mare was "in season", and so a little too tempting for the stallions already loaded. "We had to move her," Dr Thery said.

It was just another day's work for Maximus. As the economy slows around the world, air cargo rates are falling as businesses pull back on spending. But Maximus, the largest all-cargo airline in the Middle East, just had its best year ever, doubling revenues and making US$16 million (Dh58.7m) in profits. The company's success springs from its versatility. No matter what the freight, from horses worth millions of euros, to helicopters, to 100 tonnes of rice and powdered milk for disaster victims, Maximus can move it. Not many aeroplanes can fly a helicopter or 80 tonnes of cargo, Mr Buhazza said. "The market just does not have alternatives."The crisis has affected mainly scheduled airlines, which fly no matter what and charge by the kilo. We don't fly on a schedule but on an ad hoc basis."

Like many large companies in Abu Dhabi, Maximus is well connected. A member of the royal family started the company nearly a decade ago as GATS (Gulf Aviation Technology and Services). A few years later, it was renamed Experts Cargo Agency, or ECA, operating with a Russian air operator's certificate (AOC) and flying only Russian-built aircraft. Since 2005, the company has been known as Maximus, with Mr Buhazza as its chief executive. It now operates under a UAE AOC, and has expanded its fleet to include western-built Airbus A300-600 and Lockheed Martin Hercules aircraft. The company's asset base of eight aircraft is valued at more than $130m.

After previously serving UAE royalty and visiting heads of state in his time at Amiri Flight service in Abu Dhabi, Mr Buhazza said his first priority for Maximus was to bring more customer service to the air cargo industry. He made changes including assigning a bilingual co-ordinator for each flight. Language difficulties often arise in the cargo world because many of the aircraft are Russian-made, and come with Russian pilots.

But now, customers can check in any time with questions. "That worked well, especially with a Ukrainian-registered aeroplane where the crew hardly speaks English," Mr Buhazza said. Despite the global slowdown, Maximus's revenues increased from $47.3m in 2007 to $110.8m last year. The number of freight tonne-kilometres flown increased 156 per cent to 348,000, while the number of hours flown rose 137 per cent, to 8,700.

And at the end of the year, Maximus was bought out by Abu Dhabi Aviation, a locally owned group that controls Royal Jet, the VIP charter airline, and Abu Dhabi Aviation, a helicopter charter company. That may soon change. One of Maximus's best customers, the Federal Government, will soon take delivery of its own heavy airlifters as part of a $2.8 billion order announced last week. The UAE Armed Forces also ordered its own supersized cargo aircraft to enable it to do more of what it hires Maximus to do: conduct flights to humanitarian areas and environmental disasters, such as the crisis that befell Pakistan after its 2005 earthquake. The UAE bought four C-17 Globemaster IIIs from Boeing Integrated Defence Systems, each able to carry more than 80 tonnes apiece, and 12 Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules.

Mr Buhazza said the new aircraft, which would start to arrive in 2012, would inevitably lessen the UAE's reliance on Maximus's oversized aircraft. And the company has recently seen demand fall from airlines interested in wet leasing its Airbus planes; that is, leases including the crew. But Mr Buhazza stressed the airline was not dependent on its home market, with nearly half of its business coming from Asia and Europe. And Maximus is still forecasting revenues to increase to $125m, and profits to rise between 13 per cent and 19 per cent, to about $19m.

The company has steadily expanded its fleet to now include an Antonov 124, the heaviest aircraft in the skies, which can carry 120 tonnes of cargo at a time. Its three Ilyushin 76s, each with a capacity of 50 tonnes, are often called in to deliver cargo to poorly equipped airstrips in developing nations. The Il-76 is said to carry 90 per cent of disaster relief aid worldwide. Maximus also owns two Airbus A300-600s, which handled passenger service duty at China Airlines before being converted to freighters in Nov 2007. One of the planes is on a long-term charter with Sudan Airways in a wet-lease cargo arrangement. The smallest planes in the fleet, the turboprop Hercules L382, are used to carry smaller loads of 20 tonnes or less throughout the region.

Globally, aviation companies are downsizing and grounding their fleets to ride out the economic downturn, which has created the worst revenue environment in 50 years for airlines, according to the International Air Transport Association. In the Middle East, air freight demand grew 16 per cent in 2006 and slowed to 10 per cent last year. Regional air freight remained steady until July last year, growing 10 per cent on the year before, but then slowed to 1 per cent in October and declined 1 per cent and 9.2 per cent in November and December.

"Alarm bells are ringing everywhere," Giovanni Bisignani, the chief executive of IATA, said in January. "The industry is in a crisis and we have not yet seen the bottom." In the meantime, Maximus finds the transport of "four-legged valuables", as Mr Buhazza calls them, to be profitable business. The market is served by just a few airlines that specialise in carrying more than 12 horses at time. Often, the royal families have their own aircraft to transport their horses to competitions, breeding and training programmes. In Dubai, the Al Maktoum family uses a Boeing 747 for the task, while in Abu Dhabi, prize horses were once flown by the Air Force. Maximus is a new entrant. In December, it spent $800,000 on collapsible stalls, allowing the aircraft to pick up additional cargo for the return flight.

But live cargo is a small part of Maximus's overall business, limited to its Airbus planes and accounting for about five flights a month. It also requires additional expertise, and Maximus is seeking a partner as it expands its live-animal transport business. Over long journeys, horses can get dehydrated and develop gas colics. They also get frightened and can injure themselves, so some horses are sedated before the flight and many are given special braces to protect their knees and shins from their own kicking. All need to travel with grooms, and often a veterinarian. But dealing with skittish mares and excitable stallions pays off for Maximus. The recent flight carrying the racehorses netted the company $150,000.

igale@thenational.ae

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