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Drones are the missing piece of delivery logistics jigsaw, says Astral Aviation CEO

By Andrew MacDonald
Posted on Thursday, 16 July 2020 12:44

An insecticide spray plane tries to contain the advance of locust swarms in northern Kenya
An insecticide spray plane tries to contain the advance of locust swarms in northern Kenya on 1 February 2020. Ben Curtis/AP/SIPA

African air cargo will recover faster from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic than the passenger traffic industry, Sanjeev Gadhia, CEO of Kenyan cargo airline Astral Aviation, tells The Africa Report.

Next year will be “challenging” as global trade will be affected by this year’s recession, says Gadhia. Still, the African air cargo industry will recover in the second quarter, “a lot faster than the passenger industry.” Increased intra-African trade will provide a boost following the full ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area, he adds.

READ MORE Now is the time for Africa to implement AfCFTA, not later

Astral Aviation, a cargo airline operating out of Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, has operated in Africa since 2000. The company saw revenue increase by 50% in the first quarter, driven by demand for personal protective equipment sourced from China, as well as high food needs.

The company has benefitted from additional demand as it fills a need to transport cargoes which had been moving in commercial passenger aircraft which stopped flying.  The firm was initially overwhelmed by the surge in demand for its services. “We have coped very well,” says Gadhia.

The pandemic has also brought Astral challenges.

  • Crew quarantine restrictions, weekly COVID-19 testing and aircraft being fumigated before and after flights have all added to operating expenses.
  • The company does not hedge fuel purchases and is a part of the AFRAA (African Airlines Association) Fuel Program which enables it to get competitive prices by consolidating its fuel requirements with member airlines.
  • “While there has been significant volatility in the first half of 2020, we expect the fuel prices to stabilize in the second-half,” says Gadhia.

Drones

Astral serves 65 destinations and has operated over 300 humanitarian charters for medical and food items. The company has a diverse fleet on various lease arrangements. Its largest planes are two Boeing 747-400Fs and three Boeing 727Fs. Astral has also placed an order for a Boeing 767-200F to operate within Africa and to the United Arab Emirates.

Drones are increasingly becoming an essential part of Astral’s operations.

  • The company’s drone arm has been busy with Kenya’s locust relief effort.

      READ MORE Kenya opts for pesticides to contain locust infestations

  • Astral Aerial Solutions is working on a project to spray pesticides on the locusts using drones at night.
  • Management anticipates the 2-tonne payload FlyOx Cargo Drone will join Astral’s fleet at the end of the year for certification, after which it plans to operate them for humanitarian flights.

Drones such as the FlyOx have a unique advantage in that they can land in unpaved airfields and on water, which cannot be done by fixed wing aircraft. “The cost of operation is significantly lower than commercial aircrafts with a visible saving of 50% and is environmentally friendly,” adds Gadhia.

“The use of large cargo drones has been a part of Astral’s vision to bring innovation in last-mile delivery,” says Gadhia. Using unmanned aircraft can “reduce the time to delivery, not to the destination airport, but to the end client.”

Bottom Line

Drones may be the missing piece of the last-mile delivery logistics jigsaw.

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