The value air cargo brings to the world has never been more apparent, but challenges remain

Many airlines have been involved in life-saving flights during the COVID-19 pandemic ensuring, together with their partners in the logistics chain, that personal protective equipment (PPE) and urgent medical supplies were able to reach their destinations.

“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 all the challenges it has had to face. In the early days of the global pandemic, the temptation was to shut all travel down, including cargo flights. But IATA worked with ICAO to urge governments 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.

Alternative airports needed to be kept functioning, for example, as part of flight safety is having these 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 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 individuals coming from abroad. Clearly, this would not allow cargo to operate efficiently and also would put enormous strain on crews. Exemptions were therefore needed, 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 are adequate staff and facilities to process cargo efficiently.

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

Extra capacity

Although air cargo was soon flying, it became clear that the 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, as cargo cannot be carried on seats, for example, unless approval is granted by the civil aviation authorities. 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. Around 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 convert 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,” says Hughes. “So the industry united to find solutions.”


90% of passenger flights were grounded, taking out 40%-45% of cargo capacity. In March 2020, demand fell 15% compared with March 2019


Evolving challenges

Other challenges appeared. 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 elsewhere, 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, “as everybody wants to avoid a second wave of the virus. Simply, the gradual build-up of the passenger network won’t meet the demand for cargo, such as moving fresh fruit and flowers.”

However, exactly how demand will play out is difficult to assess. Undoubtedly the global recession will bite deeply, 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 kilometers of between 13% and 32% for 2020. An IATA business confidence survey with airline heads of cargo is slightly more optimistic.  Although volumes are expected to fall, respondents believed the impact won’t be as great as in the 2008-09 financial crisis.

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

Most importantly 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.

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

Image credit | Getty
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