Given that a whopping 70-plus per cent of exports passing through Hyderabad airport consists of pharma products — formulations, biologics, drug intermediates and bulk drugs — it is no surprise that the airport is pulling out all the stops to handle this specific cargo.

And that includes expansion of temperature-controlled facilities and infusion of technology for added efficiency. GMR-run Hyderabad airport is in advanced talks with vendors to bring in robotic arms, conveyor system, and automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) for its cargo operations. While a robotic arm will speed up loading and unloading of cargo, ASRS will help cut processing time, boost throughput, and optimise storage space.

Like other airports around the country, Hyderabad airport too is seeing higher growth in international cargo than domestic cargo. “The main driver is the significant 14 per cent year-on-year increase in pharma exports. Additionally, engineering goods and marine commodities have seen 25 per cent growth year-on-year,” according to a spokesperson for Hyderabad airport.

Dedicated pharma zones

The Hyderabad airport spokesperson says that the cargo terminal will be doubled in size to handle 300,000 tonnes of freight. It would include a dedicated domestic and international courier terminal. A second cargo terminal is being planned with 50,000 tonnes capacity in phase I, expandable to 100,000 tonnes. The additional facilities will increase temperature-controlled storage, which is critical for pharma and perishable goods.

The existing warehouse at Hyderabad airport has a temperature-controlled export zone with dedicated chambers cooled to 2-8 degrees C and 0 to minus-40 degrees C for pharma shipments. After the planned expansion of the terminal, the temperature-controlled area of the warehouse will increase by 66 per cent.

Additionally, the second cargo terminal would have dedicated temperature-controlled zones capable of handling 15,000-20,000 tonnes of pharma cargo per annum.

Pan-India, pharmaceutical exports rose 8 per cent year-on-year during April-November, driven by vaccine sales and demand recovery in the African market. “We expect the growth trend to continue. In FY2025 we expect pharma exports to register double-digit growth,” says Udaya Bhaskar, director general, Pharmaceutical Exports Promotion Council (Pharmexcil).

In Gujarat, a key manufacturing hub for pharmaceuticals, the airport at Ahmedabad is adding a new integrated cargo terminal, capable of handling 200,000 tonnes, alongside a pharma excellence centre. 

“We intend to make the integrated cargo terminal up and running during the first quarter of FY2025. The development work, process standardisation, and regulatory approval processes are being worked out,” an airport spokesperson says. “Pharmaceuticals is one of the key commodities and its contribution to the total volumes is significant,” he adds.

Export cargo growth

Indian airports cumulatively handled 2.18 million tonnes of cargo during April-November 2023, which is 2.3 per cent more compared to a year ago. While international volume rose by 3.8 per cent, growth in domestic cargo tonnage was flat.

To tap the burgeoning international cargo business, foreign airlines are introducing additional flights and increasing their marketing efforts. 

Last month Oman Air introduced a freighter service to Bengaluru and Hyderabad. Kenya Airways plans to start a twice weekly freighter service between Nairobi and Mumbai. 

The aircraft will offer 20 tonnes of payload per flight and cater to pharma and perishable goods. The airline plans to gradually increase frequencies to Mumbai and connect more destinations in the country.

Turkish Airlines operates both passenger and cargo flights, and targets growing its India business through new services and products. 

At a recent event, the airline’s vice president of cargo sales (Middle East and South Asia), S Burak Omeroglu, had stressed, “India is an extremely important market for us.”