Air cargo trends in a pandemic world: Peli BioThermal’s Dominic Hyde

Dominic Hyde
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As the Covid-19 crisis continues to cause worldwide disruption, with the industry impact anticipated to continue throughout 2021 and beyond, Peli BioThermal’s vice president Crēdo On Demand Dominic Hyde (pictured above) has assessed the key current air cargo trends.

Although pre-pandemic passenger numbers were already on the downturn, the Covid-19 crisis has “significantly accelerated” that trend, according to Hyde.

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“The crisis capacity crunch came as the number of passenger flights plummeted and the ensuing scramble to transport pandemic payloads saw the deployment of hundreds of passenger planes as freighters, known as ‘preighters’,” he said. “Pioneering Portuguese charter operator Hi Fly led this trend and was the first to convert an A380 for freight, taking out the majority of seats to provide more cargo capacity.

“Despite the sector seeing the grounding of hundreds of passenger planes, earlier than had been initially forecast, which led to a reduction in the availability of cargo space in the bellies of these passenger aircraft, we’ve seen more planes undergo conversions to freighters.

“The preighters prevalence looks set to continue throughout 2021 and beyond. Although the air cargo industry faces continuing challenges, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts an anticipated 25 per cent rise in freight tonne-kilometres this year.

“Boeing projects growth in the global freighter fleet with the number of cargo aircraft in service forecast to increase more than 60 per cent over the next two decades, resulting in 3,260 operational aircraft by 2039.

“However, the ongoing drastic downturn in travel means the loss of a lot of capacity in passenger aircraft, and while freighter aircraft are still present and working hard, fleet growth takes time, so there will be a slower response to replacing some of the capacity lost from the passenger side of the industry.

“Some of the 747s which have comparatively low hours on their airframes will undoubtedly become 747 converted freighters and will be flying as freighters just to try to backfill some of that loss in capacity from the passenger numbers.”

IAG Cargo preighter
Preighters have been deployed in increasing numbers, including this modified Iberia A330

Large widebody aircraft – grounded or retired

Hyde also noted that Covid-19 had “massively accelerated” decisions such as airlines cutting flights from schedules, mothballing larger aircraft, declining production options and looking to utilise smaller, more efficient aircraft in the future for environmental and economic reasons.

“The forecast to park some of the larger, widebody aircraft has been brought forward significantly, due to the COVID-19 crisis,” he said.

“The ongoing impact of the pandemic has meant the majority of all 747 freighter aircraft have or are being retired. The A380, which Airbus had previously announced it would stop deliveries of in 2021, has also been retired across the board by numerous airlines, except Emirates.

“Increasingly airlines are globally grounding their A380s in favour of more modern, smaller jets, which can fly more efficiently than their four-engine aviation counterparts.

“With far fewer passengers flying in a pandemic world, the travel downturn has ramped up decisions to park planes, some permanently, further impacting the already dwindling resource of global air freight capacity.

“What we will continue to see is a lot more interest in leaner aircraft, like the A220, the Canadian Bombardier aircraft Airbus produced in North America.”

Emirates A380
Many airlines are retiring their A380s, but the type still holds strong at Emirates

Vaccines vs virus

Another key trend is the global rollout of Covid-19 vaccines. “Temperature controlled packaging manufacturers continue to play a pivotal part in the global deployment of these approved vital vaccines, including those developed by Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford University/AstraZeneca and Moderna,” he commented.

“As Covid-19 vaccines fall into different families of technology, some have frozen and deep frozen temperature requirements, leading to a scramble to qualify existing solutions for shipping at those specific lower temperatures.

“In a rapid response to the logistical cold chain challenges involved in the deployment of these potentially lifesaving vaccines, we have adapted our shippers to meet those temperature requirements, as have other providers in the market.

“There has been an impetus for innovation to support these temperatures in volume. Suppliers stepped up to meet the vaccine temperature requirements by adapting existing shipping solutions and the capacity is there, so I don’t anticipate it will be an issue going forward.

“The focus is reverted back to the capacities in the transport modes and given the nature of these drugs people are paying whatever it costs to ship them, with rates rising sharply from $2.5 a kilo to $23; however that’s starting to calm down.

“Beyond all of the current vaccines being approved there will be the need to provide boosters. It is going to create a recurring step up in the volume of vaccines being shipped, alongside the flu vaccines being transported and other pharmaceutical payloads every year.

“There will not be a continuous crisis; it will be a continuing trend of smaller aircraft, with reduced air freight capacities, moving pharmaceutical products at temperatures that sea freight cannot do. It really can only fly.

“However, there’s not going to be a modal shift from air to sea because sea cannot meet the temperature requirements necessary for these shipments. You get a displacement, whereby Covid-19 shipments, whether vaccines, test kits and reagents or some of the therapies which help with recuperation, like Remdesivir, are flying at almost any cost on a dwindling resource.

Peli BioThermal vaccine
Companies like Peli BioThermal have a critical part to play in Covid-19 vaccine distribution

“The pharmaceuticals, which have more normal temperature shipping requirements, like 2-8°C or 15-25°C, get displaced and in that situation, when the air freight rates get so high, sea freight would normally be seen as a shipping solution.

“However with all of the sea freight challenges, coupled with the fact that their transportation rates have also doubled, there has been some displacement but not as much as pharma companies would have liked, which is what has kept pushing the prices up in the region of the $23 a kilo figure for air freight we had seen previously in the market.

“Sea freight will improve in the first six months of 2021 so some of that displacement can take place more efficiently. But aircraft will still be full of the Covid-19 related products.

“2021 will see the industry learning to operate in the new norm with everyone getting used to that new norm. Next year we might start to see some improvements and efficiencies but I think this year is about adjusting our planning, our capacities and our operations around this spike in demand and the gradually improving capacity picture. Almost like wearing in a new pair of shoes.”

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