There are background checks, X-rays and scans with security wands before you get into Emirates' cargo operation at Dubai International Airport.

The freight itself goes through similar scrutiny. Police based at the giant building screen everything that comes in with aircraft container-sized X-ray machines.

Henrik Ambak, the senior vice-president of worldwide operations at Emirates cargo, says this is how it has to be.

"They're looking for bombs, things you don't want to have on your flight," he says.

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Every piece of locally accepted freight goes through the same process.

"Not all countries are like that," he told the Herald during a tour of the facility this week.

Emirates SkyCargo is the largest international airline cargo operator in the world and earns about 15 per cent of the airline's revenue, which last year totalled $42 billion.

There's also intense security protecting trucks plying the 77km road corridor between the two vast airports in the emirate: Dubai World Central, where the freighters are based, and Dubai International (DXB), where passenger planes are operated.

Close to 400 truck journeys are made each day, each one geo-tracked to ensure the safety and security of cargo and drivers.

If a truck veers off course, the SkyCargo controllers and police are immediately notified and if necessary, trucks can be shut off remotely. Ambak says this hasn't happened but the system is there as a precaution.

The airline carries anything from envelopes to more precious cargo: sports cars, racehorses, priceless artefacts and gold.

This year it flew 13.6 tonnes of gold in the belly of passenger planes from Geneva to Hong Kong. It was the biggest consignment of gold flown by the airline, and for insurance reasons the shipment had to be split in two.

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Ambak says another gold shipment, from Paris to London, was flown on Emirates rather than taken by train because it was judged to be more secure.

"If you want to outsmart the criminal mind, you have to do something unusual," says Ambak, a Dane and a veteran of aviation cargo.

Emirates also used a Boeing 747 to transport New Zealand Aotearoa — Emirates Team New Zealand's racing yacht — from Auckland to Bermuda, where it won the 2017 America's Cup.

Most shipments are more mundane, but staggering in their scale.

Emirates SkyCargo's two airport hubs in Dubai handle 345,000 pieces every day. That's an average of four parcels every second of every hour, every day. The average volume of cargo handled every day is about 7200 tonnes.

About 82 per cent of the freight is flown in and out of Dubai; the remainder is destined for the booming city state.

Emirates SkyCargo is carried in 14 specialist freighters (13 Boeing 777-Fs and one Boeing747F) and in the belly of around 250 of its wide-body passenger fleet.

Cargo being loaded on to an Emirates freighter. Photo / Supplied
Cargo being loaded on to an Emirates freighter. Photo / Supplied

Right now there's a threat to air freight, as global demand fell to a three-year low in February, according to the latest figures from the International Air Transport Association (Iata).

Ambak says the sector is feeling the pinch after two bumper years, but for the first two months of the year his operation had been running ahead of budget.
But clouds are growing from rising global protectionism.

"It doesn't help. Since we are facilitating world trade in a distributed economy, if people try to 'undistribute' the economy by building walls. Of course it's not helpful for us. We prefer an open market where people can trade with one another."

The big airlift

• 2.6 million tonnes of freight a year on Emirates SkyCargo
• Two Dubai airport hubs handle 345,000 pieces — four every second
• Dubai is a trans-shipment hub for 82 per cent of freight
• 14 specialist freighters carry 30 per cent of Emirates' freight
• The rest is carried in the belly of passenger planes

The director general and chief executive of Iata, Alexandre de Juniac, this week said governments need to realise the damage being done by protectionist measures.

"Nobody wins a trade war," he said. "We all do better when borders are open to people and to trade."

Emirates' freighters carry 30 per cent of the total 2.6 million tonnes of freight it handles in a year. The remainder goes in passenger planes which hub through DXB, where Ambak says space constraints meant the airline had to go up, rather than out for its freight terminal, whose two main levels cover 43,600 square metres.

In April it's bustling in the build-up to Easter, and following that Ramadan, when hungry daytime fasters will look for the best quality food to eat after sundown.

New Zealand meat is sought after in the Middle East, Ambak says, and arrives on daily flights, one from Christchurch via Australia and another non-stop from Auckland to Dubai. Another flies four times a week from Auckland via Bali.

A growing part of the business is transporting pharmaceuticals. About 80,000 tonnes a year are shipped through giant temperature-controlled rooms at Emirates SkyCentral DXB.

A Boeing 777 freighter in Dubai. Photo / Supplied
A Boeing 777 freighter in Dubai. Photo / Supplied

Everything is scaled up in the super-sized terminal — an elevator has capacity for 93 people and feels big enough to hold an office Christmas party.

Lithium ion batteries have long troubled the airfreight industry and Emirates won't carry shipments of them, although it will take approved packaged retail items.

"We have become quite restrictive in what transport," says Ambak. "We would like the battery industry to develop a new battery with different chemical makeup."

Poorly stored lithium ion batteries don't need oxygen to burn because they self oxidise, rendering the traditional way of fighting fire — depriving the cargo hold of oxygen — ineffective.

Ambak says the freighter market is at a crossroads right now and the airline is taking a wait and see approach before making its next call on new aircraft.

The 777 freighter "has done a great job" and Boeing will produce a freighter version of the 777X with the promise of better fuel economy. He says Boeing is ending production of the 747, which can open its nose to take loads up to 54m long.

"When they stop manufacturing it, that means the capability the industry has will disappear," he says.

• The Herald visited Dubai courtesy of Emirates