One of the biggest cargo planes in the world made a stop at the Edmonton International Airport (EIA) this past weekend.
For the first time, three Antonov AN-124 aircrafts arrived at EIA within 24 hours. The first two Volga-Dnepr Airlines planes arrived Friday evening, and a third touched down on Saturday.
“It’s a bit of a bright spot for us in a time when we are in this long, temporary downturn on passenger travel,” EIA president and CEO Tom Ruth said.
The Antonov-124 is one of the largest planes in the world, surpassed only by the Antonov AN-225 and a small group of specialty transport planes.
The Antonov-124 has four turbofan engines and more than 20 tires. It can carry 150 tonnes — or 23 elephants. There are only 55 of the Soviet-built behemoths worldwide.
The plane doesn’t make an appearance in Edmonton that often but Ruth said the arrivals this weekend are all part of the airport’s air cargo strategy.
“Edmonton is becoming more and more known as a North American air cargo gateway,” Ruth explained. “We’ve invested a lot of time and strategy and energy on being that air cargo hub.”
Passenger traffic generates 90 per cent of EIA’s revenue, but it’s down about 95 per cent right now.
Less than two weeks ago, the airport was forced to lay off 40 per cent of its staff.
Ruth said since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, cargo charter business has doubled.
“We’ve seen this continuing growth with air cargo, particularly this year, even with the downturn with the pandemic,” he said.
Ruth noted EIA has a competitive advantage for cargo deliveries because it is the closest major North American airport to Asia via circumpolar routes and has easy access to rail and trucking distribution systems.
“Our air cargo numbers are up, even though globally they’ve been down.”
The airport said because of client confidentiality, the exact manifest, details and volumes of each cargo plane cannot be released.
However flight radar data showed one of the planes that arrived Friday night came from Guangzhou, China (with a stop in Anchorage, Alaska) while the other Antonov-124 flew into Edmonton from the east-central Florida coast. NASA said an Antonov-124 was used in late May to drop off a booster for the Mars Perseverance rover at Cape Canaveral.
EIA said many of the charters arriving in Edmonton are carrying things like personal protective equipment (PPE) and e-commerce deliveries because of online shopping.
Ruth said with more flights expected in the coming weeks, it shows the demand is there.
“It’s really a critical component in the future. Air cargo is only two per cent of the volume of goods shipped around the world, but it’s 35 per cent of the value — so if you’re growing air cargo, you’re creating a lot of air pipelines throughout the world.”
Ruth said air cargo is critical not only to the local economy but across the region.
With average passenger traffic levels not expected to return for at least another three years, he said these flights are bringing some much-needed activity.
The 124 is designed especially for heavy and oversized loads and is the second-largest cargo aircraft in the world. It’s larger cousin, the Antonov AN-225, has visited Edmonton several times in the past decade. That cargo aircraft arrived at Toronto’s Pearson Airport Saturday morning filled with 130,000 kilograms of medical supplies from China.