Each year, trillions of dollars worth of goods are being shipped across the world by air. This is not surprising as it is not only one of the fastest transport alternatives possible, it is also considered the ideal for low-volume and high-value shipments.

However, the COVID-19 outbreak and the preventive and compulsory lockdowns implemented worldwide has dramatically hampered the global air freight industry. The pandemic and the inability of both developed and developing countries to control the spread of the virus have also significantly disrupted the supply production cycle and supply chain. 

However, the impact of the pandemic is not limited to the global air freight industry alone. Even private charters that make use of various jets and turbo-prop aircraft have also been notably affected.

Air Freight: Pre and Post Pandemic

Back when things were ‘normal’, much of the heavy lifting for air cargo transport was done through passenger flights. Typically, around 40% of the annual global air cargo is transported in the belly hold of a passenger aircraft. 

New generation and wide-body planes have a vast belly hold capacity. Case in point: a passenger 777 can easily carry as much as 20 tonnes of belly cargo. Its dedicated freighter counterpart, the 777F, can hold as much as 100 tonnes overall. 

Before, airlines were able to up their passenger baggage with substantial cargo volume. However, with only 20% of global wide-body capacity available, the volume now available for cargo on a passenger flight is only a fraction of what was once considered normal.

At least 60% of the yearly global air cargo is typically moved around in freighter aircraft by cargo operators and freight forwarders. Primarily, the cargo operations are hub-focused, and they adhere to trade routes. They are also less comprehensive compared to passenger air networks.

How passenger fleets are helping to meet the shortfall

To supplement the cargo operations amidst the current crisis, airlines have been using their passenger aircraft fleets. Cargo is also loaded in the main cabin. It is balanced and distributed across the seats and secured in place using cargo netting. 

At least 20 airlines have been using their passenger aircraft for cargo missions globally, including Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways, and Delta. Passenger aircraft are being operated by their respected airliners and chartered by freight forwarders to boost their capacity. 

Low fuel price environment and low-occupancy flights

The low fuel price environment has helped ease some of the operational expenses of low occupancy flights. Some airframe manufacturers have also stepped up to offer some capacity. For instance, Boeing provided Dreamlifters to transport critical supplies, while Airbus helped transport 1.5 million face masks.  

However, despite the creative additions, a noticeable shortfall in terms of capacity is evident. As the virus continues to spread across the globe, the task of dispersing necessary supplies to virus hotspots has become quite challenging. Excess medical supplies also have to be moved from one epicenter to another.

Coordination needed to match cargo capacity demand and supply has been intensive in terms of time, labor, and negotiation. It has mostly been undertaken via unilateral arrangements
(i.e. government-driven missions operated by national carriers). Generally, efforts have been decentralized and ad-hoc. 

Dealing with the operational obstacles

Before reaching their destinations, operators have to address challenges, including operational airport curfews, fast-changing border restrictions, and overflying regulations. If the aircraft is allowed to land at a specific destination, the crew will be subjected to destination regulations that are dynamic and sometimes unharmonized when it comes to quarantine and testing.

Some operators have to also face tightened regulations upon arrival like blanket 14-day quarantine for all the crew members. There is also the risk of the cargo to also be delayed for two weeks. Undoubtedly, a two-week delay for essential supplies is not acceptable. 

The obstacles mentioned highlight the challenges encountered on a single mission. When you apply this to a global scenario, it’s easy to see a shortfall of scale and timeliness. Post-pandemic, when passenger travel can finally resume at scale, people are likely to encounter similar challenges—differing national regulations, uncoordinated border restrictions, and non-harmonized policies.

What is next for air freight and aviation?

If the experiences mentioned above provide a glimpse into the resumption of passenger air services, there is a cause for concern. If the air freight and aviation industry want to rebound, a coordinated approach must be used. Close coordination and conversation between the industry and governments must be established to enable a seamless return to normal.