March 20: Business unusual is boosting revenue at Calcutta airport's low-activity cargo terminal. Think prepaid mobile phone scratch cards of pre-4G vintage - 95 tonnes of them stashed into crates for delivery in Addis Ababa, nearly 5,500km from the city as the Boeing flies.
Ethio Telecom, the company that controls telecommunications in Ethiopia, had placed the order for scratch cards with a Calcutta-based company called Secure Print Solutions Pvt Ltd about four months ago. On February 28, a Boeing 777 cargo freighter of Ethiopian Airlines arrived at the airport and flew back loaded with the unusual consignment.
An official of Ethio Telecom, which has a subscriber base of 61 million, said almost 30 per cent of the company's requirement of prepaid scratch cards were sourced from Calcutta. "More than 90 per cent of our subscribers are prepaid customers using scratch cards. So the demand for such cards is huge in our country," he told Metro from Addis Ababa.
The list of unusual consignments lately handled by the cargo terminal include planeloads of blank currency flown in from Switzerland by the Reserve Bank of India. These were all bound Salboni, in West Midnapore, one of the two currency-printing units in the country.
For a terminal that has the infrastructure but not enough cargo to handle, consignments such as the one bound for Ethiopia are rare bright spots in a bleak business scenario. The 95-tonne order was worth more than Rs 2.2 crore, sources said.
"Our responsibility was to take the consignment till the aircraft. Ethio Telecom wanted to take it specifically by Ethiopian Airlines because of a convenient payment system," said Kushal Roy, vice-president of international business at Secure Print Solutions.
He said the company had been sending smaller consignments to Ethio Telecom over the past two-and-a-half years.
Ethiopian Airlines does not fly to Calcutta. The carrier does not operate chartered cargo flights to the city for the same reason that other international airlines cite for staying away - business-starved Bengal does not generate enough cargo for import or export to make operations viable.
Roy said Ethiopian Airlines was initially reluctant to send an aircraft to carry Secure Print Solutions's largest consignment to the East African country. The path was cleared only after he visited Addis Ababa last January and met top officials of the airline.
"We operate chartered cargo flights from Delhi and Mumbai. But this consignment was huge and so we decided to send a special flight here," said Tadesse Tilahun, regional director for the Indian subcontinent at Ethiopian Airlines.
He said it took almost six-and-a-half hours for the aircraft to reach Addis Ababa, flying non-stop from Calcutta.
According to Tilahun, garments, pharmaceuticals and machinery comprised the usual export items to Ethiopia from Calcutta. These consignments are sent to Delhi, from where the airline carries those to Ethiopia either on passenger flights or cargo freighters.