For two days Delta Air Lines’ cargo facility at Chicago O’Hare airport was off the map. On June 29, the airline notified customers that its warehouse at the Chicago gateway was closed indefinitely and would not be processing shipments. It took two days to bring the facility back on stream.
Delta did not give any reasons for the closure, but many observers speculated that the warehouse was likely overwhelmed. Congested cargo facilities and lengthy delays have occurred at several major US gateways. One forwarder reported problems at Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas, another expressed frustration with lengthy delays at New York’s JFK airport.
While it has fared significantly better than the passenger business, air cargo traffic has shrunk. The most recent published statistics from the International Air Transport Association show air cargo traffic measured in ton-kilometers was down 20.3% in May from 12 months earlier.
In the absence of most bellyhold capacity the need for lift – massively boosted by governments clamouring for large import volumes of personal protection equipment – has driven cargo activities. In addition to augmented freighter traffic (several operators brought retired cargo planes back into service), many passenger airlines joined the fray by deploying some of their widebodies on cargo missions. Frankfurt airport, Europe’s top airfreight gateway, registered 50 airlines that were conducting cargo flights with passenger aircraft in June.
Quite a few of these carriers sought to maximize utilization by loading cargo in the cabin as well as the bellyhold. While this boosted payload, it also added considerable time for the loading and unloading process. Without cargo doors, loading has to be performed manually. In addition, stowing and securing the freight in the cabin provides challenges, one operator observed.
Handling operations have been further strained by shortages in manpower. In response to the collapse of the passenger business handlers have decimated their staffing levels, in some cases reportedly by as much as 50%. To avoid Covid-19 infections among their staff, some handlers have split working teams, so an outbreak would not affect the entire group.
At the same time, handling larger numbers of full freighters has added to the crunch at the ramp and in warehouses at the gateways. In response, forwarders have resorted to trucking cargo earlier to the airport in order to make the cut-offs for departures.
Handlers have been reluctant to ramp up staff numbers, given poor forward visibility how the market is going to shape up.
Wait times at US hubs may increase after the US Federal Aviation Administration gave the green light for passenger carriers to remove seats from the cabin in order to store more cargo. Several carriers, like Air Canada and Cathay Pacific, have adopted this approach to boost payload.
US megacarriers have been lukewarm in their response, though.
“At this time, we’re not removing seats but continue to evaluate opportunities to provide creative solutions for our customers,” a spokesperson for United Airlines said.
“While we have the permission to fly cargo in-cabin, it’s not necessarily feasible or the best solution for every flight. We’re still evaluating the routes where it may be a good opportunity,” said a spokesperson for American Airlines Cargo.
Time to load the passenger cabin (which can impact turnaround time), weight and size limits, and the need for additional crew are factors that are affecting the decision, she added.
Moreover, carriers’ appetite for cargo charters with passenger aircraft appears to be on the wane as rates have come down in recent weeks, notably out of Asia, which had seen them climb beyond US$16 per kilo at their peak.
From early on most pundits had predicted that passenger cargo charters would be an ephemeral phenomenon set to wane as rates retreated from their high levels. However, some airlines look set to keep them going for some time yet.
Vito Cerone, director of cargo marketing and sales, Americas, for Air Canada Cargo, said that the carrier intends to maintain its current level of cargo flights at least for the remainder of this year. AC was one of the first carriers to remove seats from a number of Boeing 777 aircraft and it has established a regular network of passenger cargo flights.
By Ian Putzger
Air Freight Correspondent | Toronto