DUBAI // Guitars for Iron Maiden, human bodies, Rolls-Royces, buses, bees and dolphins - it seems that anything and everything passes through the cargo area of Dubai International Airport.
While the bellies of most passenger aircraft, and the main decks of freighters, are routinely filled with electronic goods from China or flowers from the Netherlands, not a day goes by without something out of the ordinary being loaded on or off an aircraft. "You never know what type of cargo will hit you," says Jean-Pierre De Pauw, divisional senior vice president for Dnata Cargo, which handles 700,000 tonnes of cargo a year for 130 airlines in Dubai.
Owners of premium cars such as Rolls-Royces may have their favourite vehicle flown to Europe for use over the summer, at a cost of more than US$10,000 (Dh36,700) each way. Then there are the prototypes that land in the UAE for hot-weather testing. "We have cars still in disguise," says Mr De Pauw. A couple of years ago, a sneaky photographer snapped a still-secret car that had been brought in for testing.
"Some pictures ended up on the internet of the new [BMW] 7-series - they were obviously taken here. But we had to take the wraps off to give [the car] to the customer." Every animal imaginable, whether a pet or zoo exhibit, has landed in Dubai. Dolphins have been brought in on stretchers, their flippers hanging down on each side as the creatures are kept moist with blankets. Horses arrive two or three to a pallet. Each month, about 200 dogs and cats pass through.
Occasionally, some animals escape. "They get excited in the voyage and the cage may not be strong enough - a big dog that gets upset will rip through anything - so when you open up the aircraft you have a very angry dog," says Mr De Pauw. If an animal is out of control, its owner may be summoned to collect it from the plane. Once, a small lion was found outside its cage when an aircraft was opened.
"A cat escaped and we found another cat and thought it was the same one," Mr De Pauw recounts. "The owner was a little bit upset." Bees often come from Egypt in cardboard boxes that are prone to bursting. "When you open the cargo door you have this swarm of bees," says Mr De Pauw. Strict guidelines specify the minimum cage sizes for animals in transit, and officials will seize protected species that lack the necessary paperwork. They are usually donated to zoos.
Charter aircraft sometimes arrive at the airport with stage and musical equipment for rock concerts, including the Iron Maiden show in Dubai last February. When Cirque du Soleil appeared in Dubai this year, their kit filled a cargo Boeing 747. Motorsport races, such as those at Dubai Autodrome, also keep the airport busy. "On a big race we can have 20 to 30 cars coming in," Mr De Pauw says. "They don't come by ship because it's too slow."
In total, about 1.8 million tonnes of cargo passes through Dubai International Airport each year, slightly more than half of it handled by Emirates Airline and most of the rest by Dnata Cargo, which has six terminals and 900 staff, plus almost as many contract workers. The company handles trans-shipments, some of which may have arrived by sea, as well as imports and exports. "We don't judge what's being carried," says Stuart Hayman , Dnata Cargo's vice president for cargo operations. "Whatever the cargo is, somebody wants that cargo. We try to treat it as if we own it.
"If we're handling a car, I tell people to treat it as if it's their own vehicle. The same goes for a box of Nike shoes. "Our job is to move goods through the supply chain as quickly as possible because somebody somewhere wants them." Of all the different types of cargo, none is more important than a transplant organ, such as a kidney or a cornea. Such items may arrive or leave by private jet. Sometimes, an ambulance will be waiting to whisk the precious cargo away.
"They come in small boxes - we never open them, we don't want to know what's inside," says Mr De Pauw. The transporting of human bodies happens almost daily, when expatriates who have died are returned to their home country for burial. Often grieving relatives will accompany the coffin to the airport, where the casket is loaded on to a cart with a green veil to make the process more dignified. Pallets of perishable goods are covered with thermal blankets on landing to protect them from the heat, as consignments might not reach a cooled storage facility until 40 minutes after they arrive.
"The thermal blanket is unique to Dubai," Mr De Pauw explains. "We designed a blanket that can be thrown over and have Velcro straps on which you fasten it." Many items that pass through are so large that they have to be lifted on to aircraft by crane. For these, the airport likes to be given notice so it can prepare. Recently, devices to cap oil wells were needed by a UAE-based rapid response team on a trip overseas.
"It's a huge valve. Some of these pieces can weigh 20-plus tonnes," Mr Hayman says. "That stops the flow of oil and puts the fire out. There must have been a recent fire in Pakistan - there was a huge lot of equipment going there." Relief goods also go through Dubai, as they did after the 2004 Asian tsunami and the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005. Many consignments for trouble spots such as Iraq or Afghanistan are dropped off by major carriers before being picked up by smaller operators prepared to fly to hazardous areas.
The flying of arms and other potentially dangerous material, such as radioactive substances for medical equipment, is strictly controlled. Fireworks, says Mr De Pauw, are too dangerous to be transported by air. "Everybody goes through quite rigorous training every six months to a year to make sure they know what they're doing," he says. "Any mistakes could cause some serious risks to the airport."
Staff are trained in cleaning up spillages, for which they wear special suits and gloves. "For the really dangerous things, we secure the area and let the specialists deal with it - the civil defence will come," Mr De Pauw says. He tells of the time when containers of compressed gas, although properly documented and handled, exploded in a warehouse on site because the wrong material had been used for the cylinder.
"The whole building shook," he recalls. "But nobody got hurt." email@example.com