Throughout the pandemic, air cargo proved its value to aviation and the world at large.

Despite capacity constraints, air cargo showed great agility to distribute personal protective equipment (PPE), essential goods, and vaccines quickly and efficiently.

“Air cargo provided resilient services even at the height of the crisis,” says Brendan Sullivan, IATA’s Head of Cargo. “It just goes to show how effective we can be when we are working together toward a common goal. We can achieve a lot when we are really focused on an objective.”

For example, to deliver PPE to all corners of the world even though international travel had largely shut down, airlines managed to re-configure passenger aircraft to carry cargo, obtain the requisite approvals for ad-hoc operations, and even innovate loading strategies to cut down turnaround times. All this was done in a matter of weeks.


Industry strategy

Certainly, the mindset around air cargo has changed. The sector’s rise in the boardroom agenda is evidenced by long-term decisions to invest in freighter capacity, revamped networks, and reimagined fleets.

To help deliver tangible progress, IATA is bringing together industry efforts in three areas. Safety, digitalization, and sustainability will define air cargo’s future.

Lithium batteries remain a safety concern. One estimate suggests the lithium-ion market will grow to $116.6 billion by 2030 on the back of compound growth above 12% per annum.

Specific government actions are needed in such areas as legal enforcement and, in particular, prosecution of those shippers who wilfully fail to comply with regulations. Simply, offenders must be prosecuted so that there is a real and personal consequence to irresponsible actions.

The industry, meanwhile, has new technologies to explore to support control efforts, including supplementary fire suppression techniques. The aim is to give airlines options for safely transporting this ubiquitous energy source.

Digitalization was boosted during the crisis. Air cargo’s notorious reliance on paper finally came under the spotlight as the continuous handing of documents was frowned on.

“But it also became apparent that digitalization underpinned the speed and agility that was essential to distributing goods and medical equipment,” says Sullivan. “It could help at border control and pass information swiftly throughout the supply chain.”

New XML standards will be the bedrock of digitalization efforts and IATA’s ONE Record will utilize these to full effect. Another project, Interactive Cargo, will also explore the ability to share information between different devices. Enabling data to be shared in an instantly recognized format will allow air cargo to capitalize on the advances digitalization has made over the past 18 months.

Sustainability, meanwhile, is at the core of everything the industry is doing moving forward. There are numerous global industry efforts of which air cargo is a part, including the Carbon Offsetting Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) and such new technologies as sustainable aviation fuels. But air cargo will also need to account for its specific externalities. New fleet, the move away from paperwork, and smarter infrastructure will all be essential in this regard.

Vaccine distribution

More than 12 billion vaccines had been ordered by June 2021, making their distribution a massive challenge for the air cargo temperature-controlled supply chain.

Specialized infrastructure and processes are needed as are qualified staff to handle such shipments. Enhanced collaboration and communication are equally vital to ensure proper planning.

Initially, the main concern was uncertainty. Air cargo partners were unsure exactly what would be required, and the pharmaceutical companies were unsure of air cargo’s capabilities. There were plenty of discussions to understand the framework in which vaccine distribution and some lessons learned from the worldwide rollout of personal protective equipment too.

But as vaccine distribution began, temperature control became the primary interest with the Pfizer vaccine in particular requiring stringent standards. This wasn’t just about having the right standards and infrastructure. Dry ice was used extensively as a refrigerant, for example. This is classed as a dangerous good as it can lead to carbon dioxide build-up if not managed properly.

Intensive collaboration helped to overcome the problem. Aircraft manufacturers issued updated guidance, fewer or no passengers gave the industry some flexibility, and packaging manufacturers came up with better solutions to reduce leaks or sublimation rates.

Regulations had also to keep pace with the unfolding situation. Aside from using dry ice as a refrigerant, vaccines contain genetically modified microorganisms (GMMOs). These must not be able to interact with the environment and so it was important to ensure regulations understood the context in which they were being transported.  Usually, there is a two-year cycle for regulatory updates, but IATA engaged with ICAO to speed this process up.

Ongoing and future challenges include security and medical waste. In terms of security, vaccines must be safeguarded against theft and tampering. Meanwhile, medical waste is a growing concern. Many countries do not have the infrastructure in place to deal with PPE waste and used syringes, for example. How those countries can be helped, and the environment protected is an ongoing discussion.

It is also vital to ensure vaccine distribution to low-income countries. Most African countries have received their vaccines under the Covax scheme. This scheme aims to supply 600 million doses to Africa, enough to vaccinate at least 20% of the population.


Booming markets

As the air cargo sector grows stronger, it will be better placed to serve the booming e-commerce market. It is estimated that e-commerce will account for about 20% of air cargo shipments in 2022. Sullivan is convinced that “air cargo is the right fit for e-commerce,” but insists it must be prepared to meet the needs of a fast-moving customer.

Aside from e-commerce, the economic outlook is broadly positive. In the short term, continuing capacity issues will keep cargo yields high. Longer term, global trade is set to double over the next two decades, making air cargo well placed to build on its newfound status.

“We want to create a space that supports innovation in air cargo in the three key areas of safety, sustainability and digtialization,” concludes Sullivan. “That means collaborating across the supply chain and monitoring global trends so that air cargo remains agile.


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