Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, air freight has been one of the hardest hit industries in logistics.
Lockdown restrictions and travel bans have caused chaos internationally with many flights being grounded. On a normal day, air freight is responsible for the transit of trillions of dollars’ worth of shipments every year. Flying is one of the fastest methods of transport and is considered ideal for low volume, high-value items. With the industry currently at its knees, it has heavily disrupted global supply chains and production cycles for multiple countries. Other sectors of aviation including commercial and private air travel have also taken major setbacks with many airlines having to resort to mass redundancies of their employees.
The Pre-Pandemic Air Freight Industry
Before COVID-19, much of the worlds air cargo was carried via passenger aircraft. This was transported in the aircraft hold and made up 40% of annual global cargo. New generation, wide bodied aircraft are equipped with a generous belly hold capacity and are ideal to carry large quantities of cargo. A Boeing 777 passenger aircraft is able to carry as much as 20 tonnes and was frequently used to transport many shipments. Unfortunately, with only 20% of the world’s air traffic in operation at the moment, this has been significantly impacted.
Although freighter aircraft continue to operate by cargo operators and freight forwarders, many of these aircraft are hub focused and are not able to access the same extensive route network as commercial aircraft which is proving restrictive and taking away much of the convenience air freight has always promised.
Making Up the Shortfall
To ensure essential cargo continues to be transported, airlines have been utilising their main passenger cabins. The load sheet must be worked out precisely to ensure the weight and balance of the aircraft is not affected and is secured into passenger chairs with netting. It was widely publicised that emergency PPE for frontline healthcare workers was transported from China in this way.
At least 20 airlines have offered their aircraft for global cargo missions including British Airways, Delta and Cathay Pacific. The aircraft are chartered by freight forwarders and operated by the airline’s crew.
Low Fuel Prices Making up for Low Occupancy
Low fuel prices have eased the expense of low occupancy flights. This has been a saving grace to many airlines which has enabled them to continue flying to destinations they would otherwise have had to cancel. Aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus have also offered their freighter aircraft to transport critical supplies including 1.5 million facemasks.
Despite these creative solutions and work arounds, the industry is experiencing a major shortfall in the capacity it is able to transport and is majorly disrupting the transportation of essential goods such as medical supplies to virus epicentres.
Coordinating cargo supplies to demand is a time-consuming business that requires intense labour and negotiation from a lot of people. During the pandemic, this has been covered by governmental departments and national carriers and have usually been organised on an ad-hoc basis
Before a shipment reaches its final destination, operators have to address certain challenges including airport curfews, border restrictions and flight time limitations. If the aircraft is permitted to land in a certain country, the crew can be subject to gruelling quarantine and testing regulations. This could see them spending up to two weeks in a hotel room upon arrival causing severe disruption to the operator. Without their crew they are without an aircraft prohibiting them from making other vital cargo journeys.
These issues are likely to cause pandemonium for the future of passenger air travel when lockdown restrictions lift. It is likely that these issues will still be in affect and will continue to prohibit many people getting to where they need to go.
Preventative Measures for the Industry
Aviation is an industry that relies on governments to work collectively and cohesively. When it comes to air freight, there needs to be more of a concerted effort made to remain consistent from one country to the other. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that new procedures are required to prepare ourselves for future crises. A framework must be developed for all countries to work from and ensure that the transportation of vital supplies is not severely disrupted regardless of the critical threat level of the world.
The development of this framework will involve analysis, risk assessments, training sessions and the re-writing of standard operating procedure. For aviation in particular, more consideration needs to be given to air cargo and how we can keep operations going in the face of a crisis. The air cargo industry has proved invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, more support needs to be given to be able to provide that invaluable service in the future.