Coronavirus: For a long time airlines have frowned on the freight sector, but right now it is a vital partner in the global fight against COVID-19

25 March, 2020

More and more aircraft around the world are being grounded as airlines reduce their flight schedules to meet the massive reduction in demand. But, while passenger demand is falling, cargo demand is on the rise and is currently playing an important role in the global fight against COVID-19.

While dedicated freighter aircraft are the first port of call, increasingly passenger aircraft are being deployed on cargo-only missions to deliver critical supplies. In China this has already played a very important part of its recovery as the spread of the coronavirus reduces and for the rest of the world is vital right now to provide essential medical supplies and in the future to support the supply chain to build the trade framework of the future.

In the US, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines have started cargo-only flights, using passenger aircraft domestically and internationally to bolster depressed global airfreight capacity. Elsewhere, Air Canada, Aeromexico, Austrian Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates Airline, Iberia, Korean Air, LATAM Airlines Lufthansa, Qantas, Scoot, Swiss and many other carriers have made some passenger aircraft in their fleets available for chartered cargo operations.

This week, OAG revealed that an estimated 37 million weekly seats have been withdrawn from airline schedules when compared to the proposed networks they planned to operate at the start of the year. Taking a baseline 180-seat aircraft that would account to 205,555 departures, or over 100,000 return flights. Our own analysis at The Blue Swan Daily based on OAG’s data shows that the actual number of one-way flights removed during the week is over 217,000, a -29.6% reduction compared with what was planned at the start of the year.

As the chart below illustrates, Italy, currently the worst hit country in terms of COVID-19 deaths and second by cases, has seen the largest reduction in weekly flights – no real surprise given the lockdown in place in the country. More surprising may be the percentage reductions at many other of the world’s largest aviation economies.

CHART - The reduction in the number of weekly flight departures from each of the world's 20 largest aviation markets is significantSource: The Blue Swan Daily analysis of OAG schedule data (compares w/c 23-Mar-2020 departures between schedules planned on 01-Jan-2020 and 23-Mar-2020)

The cuts to passenger services and resultant aircraft groundings has had a profound impact on the freight sector as their bellyhold cargo and regular schedules were a popular means of air cargo shipment. In fact, they accounted for almost half of all cargo carried before the coronavirus crisis began.

But while airlines are seeking to fill the gap between cargo demand and available capacity by resuming freighter services and using passenger aircraft for cargo operations, as is commonplace in the aviation sector, significant barriers remain.

Despite the obvious freed capacity at airports, International Air Transport Association (IATA) has warned this week that air cargo bottlenecks are still being seen with cargo flights filled with life-saving medical supplies and equipment being grounded due to “cumbersome and bureaucratic processes to secure slots and operating permits”. These delays, says the organisation’s director general and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, “are endangering lives”.

It seems simple but governments need to reduce the red tape and keep global supply chains open. IATA says governments need to remove key obstacles such as traffic rights restrictions, exempting flight crew members who do not interact with the public from 14-day quarantine requirements, removing economic impediments, such as overflight charges, parking fees, and slot restrictions. Additionally, it calls for the introduction of fast track procedures for overflight and landing permits for cargo operations, particularly in key manufacturing hubs in Asia.

The Blue Swan Daily has highlighted that airlines often air cargo is viewed by many passenger carriers as a ‘stepchild,’ but changes in the global supply chain have given cargo greater prominence. The surge in growth of e-commerce has transformed consumer behaviour and has driven major increases in demand. Right now cargo is on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19.

It was just a matter of months ago that Korean Air was said to be exploring whether to focus on its passenger or cargo activities at Incheon International Airport due to capacity constraints at the major hub. While South Korea appears to be in a much better position than many other countries with regard the control of COVID-19, right now cargo would certainly be that choice.

Nothing highlights the important role of cargo today than the fact that while passenger aircraft are being parked, the world’s largest commercial aircraft has this week emerged from mothballing. The one-of-its-kind giant Antonov An-225 freighter has spent much of its life on the ground, but emerged from a hangar at Kyiv Hostomel Airport on 25-Mar-2020 and completed what appears to have been a two-hour air test. If successful, this aircraft could be a vital part of the air cargo arsenal that will deliver us to our new normality.