All over the world, frontline medical workers have put their personal health on the line every day to treat the sick and infected; and the way the air cargo industry has rallied to support those health workers also deserves great merit.
Whilst many of us have been confined to the safety of the homeworking environment these past several months, freight forwarders, truckers, ground handlers, customs officers, together with airline flight and dispatch crews have been on the frontline transporting much-needed medical equipment, supplies and medicines wherever in the world they are needed. They are all heroes. They represent the best of this industry, coming together to put the needs of others above their own. The dedication and commitment demonstrated by the great men and women of air cargo to the vital role played by them and this industry is highly commendable.
If we go back 10 years and remember what happened during the crisis that followed the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull Icelandic volcano, and how Atlantic trade lanes were closed off for a number of days – not as long as this current crisis – already from that short closure, the impact was felt from air cargo being missing. What we have now is visibility of air cargo. And once a vaccine is developed, the sheer scale of the need to transport it will yet again show the value of air cargo in times of crisis, as well as in times of expansion.
We should also reflect on the innovative way the airlines have mobilised their grounded passenger fleets for cargo-only operations, which has also been very impressive. Employing new safety risk assessments, operational processes, and in some cases installing new global networks in such a short timeframe has been remarkable.
With nearly two thirds of the world’s passenger fleet grounded, removing nearly 40% of the global air cargo capacity, the utilisation of the industry’s fleet of freighters has increased and many previously parked aircraft have been returned to service. This, together with the growing number of passenger aircraft operating as cargo-only flights, has helped address some of the current capacity shortfall.
IATA has supported the carrier efforts by developing guidance material on key safety aspects to consider when utilising passenger aircraft for cargo operations, and special handling guidance when it comes to shipping human remains and other precious cargo impacted by the pandemic. We have also produced guidance on aircraft sanitisation and bio-safety procedures to protect ramp and cargo facility employees.
On the aero political side, IATA advocated with international bodies and national civil aviation regulators about the need to keep air cargo flowing and for exemptions for cargo crew from travel restrictions and quarantine provisions. We have also advocated for implied processes to be applied when carriers seek operational permits for charter operations and for slot and other restrictive measures to be relaxed.
With the industry projected to suffer from a more than US$300 billion reduction in revenue compared to 2019, IATA has also been working with governments about financial supportive measures necessary to help the entire aviation industry weather this current storm.
From a cargo demand perspective, movement of PPE remains very strong as countries start to slowly reopen economies and relax social lockdown policies. With the reintegration of people in common environments, the demand for personal-use face masks will see high demand for some time.
Air cargo will also be critical to support factory re-openings with urgent supply chain restocking of components and movement of finished goods.
But we can anticipate a rollercoaster ahead of us for a while. We expect strong growth in some e-commerce transactions to continue as they have these past months. We can also expect that once traditional consumerism returns as shops start to reopen, air cargo will be vital for restocking.
Unfortunately, we can also anticipate that at some point this year the economic contraction will result in slowed activity and workers who have had employment impacted will focus on replenishing savings drawn upon during the lockdown. This may have a detrimental effect on consumer behavior later in the year.
There will no doubt be some long-lasting impacts of the current crisis, namely society will be different; I think we as individuals will be different; we will work differently and appreciate things differently. And from the positive impact that air cargo has had, I’m certain that it will be indelibly etched in the minds of everybody around the planet, of how air cargo has responded to help frontline medical staff and those infected with the virus by transporting much-needed medical supplies and medicines.
And what of the future?
And what of the future? The airlines will come out of this looking very different. Passenger confidence will take a while to come back. Many airlines may not be able to carry a fleet designed for 2020 passenger levels in a market where numbers are less than in 2016. I think it will also accelerate the arrival of a hands-free industry: we’ll see a lot more digitalisation.
From a business perspective, we hope that 2021 will present a less-volatile business environment – but with the reduced passenger numbers, we can anticipate challenges in achieving global cargo connectivity until the passenger networks return to full-scale operations.