The air freight market has stabilised considerably since the extraordinary disruption last year, and volumes transported worldwide have more or less recovered to 2019 levels. An estimated 2,000 pax planes are being used as ‘preighters’, with 250-300 partially converted by having seats removed and tracks installed to cater for cargo.
But it remains a highly disrupted, volatile and uncertain market. Cargo airlines may be prospering from high demand and prices, and some specialist cargo airports they serve. And freight forwarders continue to make money. But for many airlines and airports, and the cargo handlers and other suppliers that serve them, this is clearly still an exceptionally challenging situation.
Cargo handlers face a long list of extra issues, including staff challenges linked with Covid, demand surges, changing airline schedules and contracts, the additional handling requirements of ‘preighters’, greater numbers of freighters, large numbers of smaller shipments, and new consignees unfamiliar with air freight practices. Greater cooperation among cargo handlers and cargo communities has helped limit some of these issues, one positive from this crisis.
The rollout of Covid vaccines offers some prospect of passenger flights returning, but how fast and to what extent remain unclear. With the ocean freight market also disrupted, modal shift looks set to boost air freight volumes for some time, along with rising e-commerce and healthcare-related traffic. A shortage of capacity not demand will likely limit air freight for the immediate future, notes Sebastiaan Scholte (page 36) in his new role as GSSA, with yields higher than pre-Covid levels for the next few years.
Another positive from this generally miserable crisis is the further acceleration of digitalisation, discussed on page 18. Some benefits are already emerging, with much more to come – including potentially the ‘virtual integrator’ model some believe air freight deserves (page 60).
Meanwhile, air freight’s vital role in this crisis continues and evolves. Concerns about capacity or the ability to keep vaccine product temperatures stable have lessened, and new air freight container and product launches can facilitate its distribution (page 4), along with impressive collaboration initiatives across the sector.
Air freight has continued to adapt and keep vital goods flowing, as it did last year. And as commentators in the Outlook 2021 Report observe (pages 30-59), its role has become far more valued – by airline and airport boards, and throughout society. As TIACA’s Glyn Hughes highlights in a recent EVA podcast with Chris Notter, this surely makes air logistics a more visible career choice for younger people – something this sector has been discussing for many years.
But in the meantime, it’s busy managing the global air logistics situation. And doing a pretty good job of it.