Back to the future

posted on 27th May 2020
Back to the future

United hadn’t operated a schedule of cargo-only aircraft since it stopped flying DC-10 freighters in December 2000. But it expects to operate over 1,000 cargo-only flights in May, and United Cargo president Jan Krems is proud of the creativity, resilience and dedication displayed by his team

What have been the biggest challenges to your air cargo business and cargo handling operations from the coronavirus pandemic and the measures taken to reduce its spread?
The biggest challenge we faced in meeting our customers’ needs as the pandemic began to spread was that passenger demand fell quickly while the need for cargo capacity was growing – including demand for movement of vital medical supplies like masks, goggles, hazmat suits; ventilators and other surgical equipment; test kits, pharmaceuticals and biologicals, etc.

Our capacity is normally determined by United’s passenger network – though we do have some influence on equipment and routings. But with our cargo-only flights, we are able to add cities and frequencies based on what our customers need. Of course, we work closely with our United colleagues and the governments of the destinations, to develop our cargo-only flights network.

How have you responded to these challenges? To what extent does it solve or mitigate the problems presented?
Thanks to our customers’ support, United Cargo has been able to quickly develop a comprehensive global cargo-only flights programme. Since we began using Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft from United’s passenger fleet for this purpose, we have operated over 1,000 cargo-only flights carrying more than 16 million kilos of cargo. These numbers are even more impressive when you consider that, before we began the programme on March 19, United hadn’t operated a schedule of cargo-only aircraft since we stopped flying DC-10 freighters in December 2000.

We expect to operate over 1,000 cargo-only flights in May between six of our US hubs and 16 cities worldwide: AMS, BRU, BOM, CTU, DUB, FRA, HKG, ICN, LHR, MEL, PEK, PVG, SJU, SYD, TLV and ZRH. We also expect to begin service to and from additional cities soon, and continuing to expand our cargo-only flights program is a top priority for our team.

What new opportunities have arisen, amid the undoubted challenges of the last few weeks?
Just in the past week, United has received FAA approval to begin using in-cabin storage areas, including overhead bins and closets, to carry cargo on our cargo-only flights. Cargo demand continues to grow, so any additional capacity is a benefit to our customers – many of whom are shipping critical medical equipment, PPE, and other vital commodities the world needs to manage through the pandemic.

Some freight forwarders have reported longer handling times in recent weeks. Would you agree that this has been a challenge?
There have been instances of increased handling time in some airports as customs personnel and local teams adapt to new and different processes. United Cargo is much less impacted by these challenges than some other carriers for a variety of reasons: first, we are loading cargo in the same areas and in the same manner as we do in normal times; second, capacity on many of our cargo-only airplanes is booked far in advance – giving our customers plenty of lead time to compensate for any longer handling times; and third, many of our cargo-only departures are single-customer ‘charters’ – having a single customers’ shipments on a flight tends to lessen the impact of any local issues.

How well do you feel the air cargo handling sector has responded to the various challenges?
From the perspective of over 30 years in air cargo, I am very proud of the way our industry has stepped up to supply what the world needs to manage through this crisis. I am most proud of the creativity, resilience and dedication displayed by the United Cargo team – we’ve quickly developed an entirely new way to serve our customers while continuing to deliver the quality of customer service they deserve and expect.

How do you see the situation evolving over the coming weeks and months?
This will depend on how quickly passenger demand, and therefore passenger flight schedules, recover. Right now, we have substantial cargo demand while passenger demand has fallen over 90%. Based on previous experience, I expect cargo demand to return more quickly than passenger demand. So, when passenger flights begin to ramp up, we still expect to be operating some cargo-only flights to ensure we can accommodate our customers.