The value air cargo brings to the world has never been more apparent. Many airlines have been involved in humanitarian flights during the COVID-19 pandemic and together with their partners in the logistics chain ensured personal protective equipment (PPE) and other urgent medical supplies reached their destination.

“Without air cargo, there is no doubt that the impact of the global coronavirus outbreak would have been far worse,” says Glyn Hughes, IATA’s Head of Cargo.

Keeping logistics open

The industry’s performance is all the more remarkable considering the challenges it has faced.

In the early days of the global pandemic, the temptation was to shut all forms of travel down, including cargo flights. But IATA worked with ICAO to urge governments worldwide to take the necessary steps to keep global logistics open. Generally, governments responded and supported the industry’s efforts. But that still left a lot of work to be done.

Airports needed to be kept functioning, for example, especially alternatives. Part of flight safety is having alternative airports available in case of emergencies. But many of these secondary facilities had lost all service and so were effectively shut down. 

Major hubs, meanwhile, were still operating with existing slots and curfews. These had to be changed or waived to allow cargo flights to operate. And as most of the cargo flights were chartered, permits needed to be fast-tracked to allow them to fly.

Another operational issue was resolving difficulties with crew regulations. Many countries were insisting on a 14-day quarantine for any individual coming from abroad. Clearly, this wouldn’t allow cargo to operate efficiently and would also put enormous strain on cargo crews. Exemptions were therefore needed to allow crew to return home to their families while taking into account all possible safety measures.

Unfortunately, there are still many examples of delays in each of these areas and so IATA continues to urge governments to:

  • Cut the paperwork for charter operations
  • Exempt cargo crew from quarantine rules that apply to the general population
  • Ensure there is adequate staff and facilities to process cargo efficiently.

Extra capacity
Though air cargo was soon flying, it became clear that demand for its services was outstripping supply. Some 90% of passenger flights were grounded, which took out about 40%-45% of cargo capacity. In March 2020, demand fell 15% compared with March 2019 but capacity was reduced by 23%

The solution—to use passenger aircraft for all-cargo flights—brought a fresh set of issues for the industry to overcome. Cargo cannot be carried on seats, for example, unless approval is granted by the civil aviation authorities. And further approvals are required if airlines decide to remove seats entirely with the primary focus being on flight safety.

Of course, being able to use the passenger cabin does make a big difference to the amount of cargo that can be carried. Somewhere in the region of 1,000–1,500 extra boxes can be accommodated although getting them in through passenger doors and packing them is a further obstacle that can only be overcome with a human chain.

IATA published guidance early on to help the conversion of passenger aircraft into cargo carriers. Dangerous goods cannot be packed in the cabin, for example, because of the difference in fire detection and suppression systems. And the weight restrictions in the overhead compartments must be respected.

“But the need to get urgent medical supplies and equipment to where they were needed was too important to give in to the challenges,” says Hughes. “So, the industry united, including governments, to find solutions.”

Evolving challenges
Other challenges continue to evolve. Where to fly to and from illustrates the case in point. Paracetamol-based products—the main home treatment—are predominantly manufactured in India and China. But as these countries experienced lockdowns, and as the virus took hold in various countries, supply and demand shifted and has been doing so constantly ever since.

“It will probably be a long time yet before flight networks resemble their pre-COVID-19 look,” says Hughes. “The ramp-up of the industry will be slow as everybody wants to avoid a second wave of the virus. Therefore, air cargo will need to retain its flexibility for some time yet. Simply, the gradual build-up of the passenger network won’t meet the demand for cargo, such as moving fresh fruit and flowers inter-continental.”

Exactly how demand will play out is difficult to assess, however. Undoubtedly the global recession will bite deep and global trade is a significant driver of air cargo fortunes. But pent-up demand is expected to balance this dip, at least initially. This spike in consumer retail could be particularly beneficial to air cargo as maritime cargo struggles to react quickly enough to market movements.

The World Trade Organization scenarios envisage a drop in cargo tonne kilometres between 13% and 32% for 2020. An IATA business confidence survey with airline Heads of Cargo is slightly more optimistic. Though yields and volumes are expected to fall, respondents believed the impact will not be as great as in the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

Hughes also points to the positive. As the industry reassesses the way it operates, digitization and automation will doubtless move up the agenda, bringing greater efficiency. 

Most important of all though is an appreciation of the global logistics network, truckers and handlers as much as air cargo. The work done by the air cargo supply chain has made the public and governments aware that the network is about far more than just getting the latest gadget on the shelves.

“The hope is that this appreciation transfers to harmonized, smarter regulation and effective procedures that enhance the value air cargo brings to the world,” concludes Hughes.

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