Before the pandemic, belly freight represented around 50% of the total available cargo capacity. With the grounding of passenger planes, different solutions had to be found for air shipping. One of these was the return to flight of the Antonov AN-225 Mriya, the largest plane in the world. The plane is one-of-a-kind, with six engines and an 88-metre wingspan (the largest wingspan of any operational aircraft). It was built in 1985 in the Soviet Union to transport a space shuttle. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was used for various heavy-lift cargo, but in recent years, it has been grounded as demand for this type of transport is rare. The plane resumed operations in March 2020, just as just as the rest of the world’s airplanes were being grounded due to the impact of the pandemic on commercial aviation. The Antonov Mriya has been active since, delivering masks and medical supplies from China to other parts of the world and recently transporting medical oxygen production equipment to India.
The pandemic changed our relationship with passenger air travel: all the fleet groundings, travel restrictions, and empty airports are still vivid images for us all. Something we might not have noticed, however, is how the pandemic changed our relationship with the air cargo industry.
The increase in e-commerce and the massive imports of face masks and other medical equipment needed in the fight against the health crisis translated into a rapid rebound of the volume of cargo transported by air, which is currently higher than its pre-pandemic levels.
The first half of 2020 was a very challenging year for the air cargo industry: air freight volumes dropped considerably, capacity was very limited as belly freight transportation, the transportation of goods via passenger aircraft, was virtually not possible. For logistics companies it quickly became very important to manage bottlenecks, to remain competitive and ensure an efficient delivery.
The second half of the year, however, was quite different: the recovery in global exports and a shift from maritime freight to air freight meant a quick rebound in air freight trade volumes. This change in preference of the exporting companies was due to the need for quick transportation to meet the delivery deadlines already disrupted by the pandemic, to the low fuel prices and to the problems faced by the maritime shipping industry (such as the container shortage and the Suez blockage). According to Kühne+Nagel’s latest quarterly report (see figure on the bottom left), the rebound in Air Logistics has been much more pronounced and stable versus Sea Logistics.
According to the IATA (International Air Transport Association), the scenario for the cargo industry is positive with a 2021-forecasted growth in cargo tonne kilometers (CTK) of 20% compared to 2020 and of 3% compared to 2019. However, this growth is not uniform across the globe: North America, Africa, and the Middle East have grown the most, while Latin America still lurks at the pandemic levels.
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