Air Cargo Shipping and Passenger Flight Cancellations

Global shipping, like so many industries, has been greatly and unexpectedly impacted by the novel Coronavirus, COVID – 19.  For the airline industry, this crisis has many underlying layers.

The biggest problem the airlines are facing is that human beings are, or were, their main cargo. Now, with very few people traveling by air, many airlines are converting their passenger aircrafts into makeshift cargo planes.

American Airlines, which in early March was operating only 8 of its 20 massive Boeing 777-300ERs, has plans to expand on their cargo-only flights with 126 weekly flights to 15 cities in the US, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. Delta and United have begun to convert their passenger aircraft as well, but the process takes time.

The conversion from passenger to cargo planes is happening overseas too with Austrian, China Eastern, Lufthansa, Qantas, Korean Air, Emirates and Swiss all adding freight only flights to their schedule.

Previously, cargo would ship with passenger planes, however, it was typically held in the belly of the plane while passengers sat happily above. While this worked well for the airlines prior to COVID – 19, it is not currently a viable option as airline passengers have all but disappeared.

As planes are converted from passenger to cargo, the speed of air shipping has made it the most sought-after shipping option for COVID – 19 supplies such as personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks and gowns which are necessary for all medical personnel. The prices of air shipments are also on the rise due to COVID – 19 as a result of fewer flights and as greater demand for the speed and convenience of air-shipping grows. Air-shipping rates out of China have reached record highs due to the PPE problems. In addition, regulatory constraints are adding to the stress of air-shipments. Bureaucratic processes to obtain necessary permits and slots are slowing the ability for cargo-filled passenger planes to even operate.  The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently released guidelines recommending flexibility in night curfews or airport slot restrictions, waiving the 14-day quarantine for cargo flight crews who do not interact with the public, removing excess fees and allowing fast track procedures for global manufacturing hubs such as China.

However, the IATA’s recommendations are not requirements, countries can choose whether or not to comply. With most of the air-freight flights occupied by medical equipment and supplies, as well as increased costs and fewer flights, ground freight shipping has become the go-to reliable shipping option.