Case Study: Ethiopia challenges Dubai with Africa’s largest air cargo terminal

Tewolde GebreMariam, CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, says the airline’s new 38,000sqm air cargo terminal in Addis Ababa puts the city in direct competition with hubs like Dubai
Unitechnik planned and realized the new air cargo terminal for the national airline Ethiopian Airlines
Unitechnik planned and realized the new air cargo terminal for the national airline Ethiopian Airlines


The largest air cargo terminal in Africa has been running at capacity since the beginning of the year.

ACUNIS, the cooperation between German brands Unitechnik and AMOVA, planned and implemented the new air cargo terminal in Addis Ababa for government-owned Ethiopian Airlines.

The air cargo facility covers 38,000 m², an area as large as five soccer pitches, and is divided into refrigeration and a dry storage zone. 600,000 tons of fresh food and dry goods can be transshipped at the installation.

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The cargo terminal is pioneering both in regard to throughput and logistics processes as well as its security standards.

To attract investors and the business world to the country, Ethiopia as a classic landlocked country without a port of its own had to guarantee that local goods can be exported and transshipped rapidly and efficiently.

The government and national airline Ethiopian Airlines (EAL) laid the foundation with the new air cargo terminal. In doing so, they are also making a sustainable investment in Ethiopia's general infrastructure.

Dry goods and fresh products like coffee, meat, flowers, fruits and vegetables are now shipped around the world from Addis Ababa. Particularly in the transport of perishables, professional storage, seamless documentation and rapid transshipment play a decisive role and are also important prerequisites for trading with industrialised nations.

The new air cargo facility expands the capacity of the existing air freight terminal which was planned and built by the ACUNIS Group and creates the conditions for the efficient transshipment of fresh goods.

Ethiopian Airlines has increased its previous throughput capacity with the new facility from 350,000 tons per year to nearly one million tons.

"In the long term, in making this investment, we want to establish our capital not only as a freight hub for the African continent, but also as an international cargo hub. This puts us in direct competition with hubs like Dubai," says Tewolde GebreMariam, CEO of Ethiopian Airlines.

From landside to the airside and vice versa

Export and import orders as well as transit processes are handled through the new facility in which the terminal serves as a transshipment point.

The freight centre is divided into a spacious refrigeration zone (17,000 m²) with temperature ranges from 2 to 10 degrees Celsius and a non-refrigerated dry zone (19,000 m²).

The computer-controlled installation has capacity for 600,000 tons of freight per year. The dual-heart of the terminal are two automatic warehouses for air cargo containers (unit load devices, ULDs).

Containers of various sizes can be combined in the 20 foot compartments, so that up to 1,000 10 ft ULDs can be stored simultaneously.

Four fully automatic elevating transfer vehicles (ETV) are used to handle the heavy aluminium containers weighing up to 6.8 tons. The demands on the process chain are especially high to ensure optimum throughput.

Once a cargo plane lands, it must be unloaded as rapidly as possible and loaded with new freight. Maintaining the cold chain for fresh products also has top priority.

Designed for import and export

The actual work at the cargo terminal commences once a cargo plane has landed and the ULDs have been stored in the automatic system.

Goods for import are repackaged onto pallets for further transport by truck. The ULDs are conveyed to special workstations for this purpose. These workstations can be lowered to make loading and unloading easier.

The target pallets are placed into interim storage in a ten-aisled pallet warehouse by very narrow aisle trucks (VNA). Goods to be exported go through the same process in the opposite order. They are then transported to the planes.

The combination of automatic and manual systems ensures a high throughput rate and maximum availability.

Fresh flowers from Ethiopia

In the spacious perishables terminal, EAL has created sufficient capacity for the transshipment of fresh products.

Ethiopia exports cut flowers and meat in large quantities. The future of the installation is ensured as it is designed to meet international standards and guarantees an uninterrupted cold chain for perishables.

It includes an ultra-modern and energy-efficient unit that keeps the 17,000 m² hall complex cool.

Refrigeration of the complete hall area from the gates on the airside to the truck ramps on the landside guarantees compliance with the cold chain throughout all process cycles. Special coolers also ensure that products entering the facility are cooled to the target temperature as quickly as possible.

Comprehensive security system

Incoming and outgoing goods are inspected using the latest x-ray technology and go through quality assurance by expert personnel.

To prevent unauthorized individuals from gaining access to the facility, the terminal is equipped with a state-of-the-art access control system.

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A comprehensive camera system (CCTV) also monitors safety-critical zones and makes the warehouse processes transparent even after the fact. The safety of workers at the workplace is also of great importance: light barriers at the gates protect access to the fully automatic section and stop the automatic system as soon as persons enter the critical zone.

To ensure permanent availability of the automatic systems, warehouse operation is also backed up by several generators. In the event of a power failure, these generators are started and cover the installation's electricity requirements for several hours.

Precise control of warehouse processes

The brain behind the logistics facility is the warehouse management system (WMS). The control system based on the own UniWare software platform, manages all warehouse slots and coordinates all automatic and manual movement of goods, including the movement of goods between the landside and the airside.

The WMS system coordinates the arrival of goods at the truck ramp and assigns pallets a slot in the manual high-bay store.

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On the airside, the system identifies arriving ULDs and controls their storage in the automatic ULD high-bay racking store. In the zone between shipment pallet warehouse and ULD storage, the ULDs are loaded (builtup) or unloaded (breakdown) using height-adjustable workstations.

Workers keep the complex material flow under control using the UniWare-VISU visualization integrated in WMS.

This feature shows the state and processes inside the warehouse in real-time. The intuitive warehouse management system can be operated from anywhere in the warehouse thanks to mobile data terminals. UniWare communicates with the Cargospot host system which handles the overall coordination of freight orders.

"Our WMS has interfaces to all cargo hosts and thereby ensures reliable processes in the sophisticated cargo logistics. UniWare is currently in use at more than 12 international airports," says project manager Sebastian Sommer of ACUNIS.

Flexibility in planning and construction

ACUNIS's mandate included the planning of the entire terminal, including construction and realization of the complete logistics installation.

Since the existing construction site was on a slight incline and proved to be insufficiently stable, one half of the terminal had to be lowered by eight meters.

"This development did not turn up until we were in the planning phase and demanded the utmost in flexibility from us. We had to build another road and plan lifts to compensate for the difference in elevation," Sebastian Sommer said.

Using the solutions suggested by ACUNIS, construction costs for the terminal stayed within the forecast budget despite the new design requirements.

The state airline is already prepared for any future expansion of the facility with the planned addition to the terminal to accommodate 1.2 million tons per year.

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