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Trade lanes: Is transpacific trade on the road to recovery?

How has the transpacific trade route fared over the past year? What role has the route played, and what does the future hold? Features editor Melissa Moody has the answers 

This piece first appeared in the Summer issue of Airline Cargo Management, you can read the full magazine  

There is no doubt that trade between North America and Asia has been affected by the events of the last year, exacerbated by travel bans, lockdowns and rapidly increasing infection rates. 

As the initial epicentre of the virus, trade coming out of Asia was hit hard by factory closures and grounded aircraft. The impact on trade spread across the globe as the pandemic grew. But with the roll out of vaccines, there is now more reason for optimism. 

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global cargo volumes reached the highest level in recorded history in March, although growth had slowed compared to February. Industry-wide cargo-tonne kilometres (CTKs) rose by 4.4 per cent, versus the pre-crisis levels, and by 0.4 per cent month-on-month. 

The Airbus A380 of Singapore Airlines.

“The underlying drivers of air cargo demand remain positive,” IATA said in its March air cargo market analysis. “The latest monthly PMI surveys indicate that the global demand for exports has been recovering as countries emerge from lockdowns and business activity restarts. This bodes well for the near-term cargo developments since the growth in order books has been historically associated with growth in CTKs.” 

The association predicts that CTKs could rise by 13.1 per cent compared to 2020, representing a 2.8 per cent increase over 2019 levels. 

IATA attributed the slower growth in March to a “weaker performance” from Asian Pacific carriers which reported a 2.5 per cent CTK drop. However, it also noted that Asia Pacific and North American airlines posted the fastest capacity improvement, up 13.3 per cent and 6.5 per cent month-on-month respectively. 

North American international cargo volumes also trended upwards in March, with a one per cent growth. In comparison with pre-crisis levels, CTKs were up 14.5 per cent in March. “The cargo outlook for the region remains promising due to positive developments in underlying demand drivers,” the market analysis noted. 

Conversely, IATA found that Asia Pacific international CTKs hovered close to pre-crisis levels in March. Down 2.7 per cent, the organisation observed a weakness on the majority of the key trade lanes connected with Asia. 

“For now, it is unclear what caused the setback since we did not observe any significant fall in capacity nor spike in cargo rates compared with February,” the market analysis reported. 

The decrease could be partially attributable to strict crew quarantine requirements in Hong Kong, which is what Cathay Pacific found when its year-on-year March cargo figures dropped by 39.4 per cent. 

“This was despite our efforts to operate more cargo-only passenger flights as well as chartered freighter flights,” said Cathay Pacific Group’s chief customer and commercial officer Ronald Lam. 

The carrier also found that demand was particularly strong from Northeast Asia and the Americas.  “Load factor improved to an all-time high of 86.4 per cent, whilst the revenue share for our ‘Priority LIFT’ product continued to increase as customers sought express solutions for their critical shipments,” Lam continued. 

Looking up 

Many airlines have found that demand out of Asia has increased significantly, particularly with the rise of online shopping and vaccine transportations. 

Delta Cargo’s vice-president Rob Walpole says that the airline’s numbers are up versus previous years despite having less flights in operation. “In addition to the effect of reduced belly capacity in the transpacific, the healthy manufacturing/economic output from Northeast Asia and the current seaport congestions are making air cargo even more desirable.” 

Delta Airlines cargo has seen an increase in demand in the last year

Singapore Airlines also paints a positive picture, noting that cargo numbers for the Americas have been encouraging in terms of both load factors and yields. “Despite reporting an overall loss and drop in group revenue in our third quarter financial results, this loss was partially offset through improvements in our cargo flown revenue,” says a Singapore Airlines representative. “While our passenger flight network has been significantly curtailed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, our cargo network has remained incredibly important and we have sought to protect it as far as possible.” 

Walpole notes that there is still a “decent” amount of Covid-related items being transported, such as PPE and medical equipment, although not nearly as much as in 2020. Instead, the usual commodities such as automobile, machinery parts and high-tech electronics are demanding a “significant” amount of cargo space. 

Singapore Airlines agrees with this assessment, stating that during the pandemic it transported mass shipments of PPE and, more recently, vaccines to meet demand. In February, the airline launched a new service called ‘Thrufresh’ to transport time- and temperature-sensitive perishable cargo.
The introduction of the service followed the airline becoming the first in Southeast Asia to receive IATA’s global certification for its handling of perishable products via its Singapore hub, further expanding the cargo services the airline can offer.

Emerging stronger 

Navigating the past year hasn’t been easy for anyone, but airlines are beginning to see the other side. A Singapore Airlines representative elaborates: “At the outset of the pandemic we were forced to cancel 98 per cent of flights, but this has carefully been rebuilt and now Singapore Airlines is on track to be operating 26 per cent of pre-Covid-19 capacity by the end of June, including both increased frequencies and the reintroduction of additional destinations.”  

To alleviate cargo capacity constraints, the airline introduced a scheduled cargo-only passenger flight network and maximised the utilisation of the existing freighter aircraft fleet. Additionally, it obtained regulatory approval for the carriage of cargo in the cabin of passenger aircraft. This offers a means for the airline to optimise the usage of cargo belly-hold space as higher-density shipments can be carried there once lighter and more volumetric cargo is placed in the cabin. 

The pandemic has given the airline a new outlook. Valuing its cargo division more than ever, Singapore Airlines intends to continue to invest in strengthening air cargo capabilities and accelerate digitalisation to better serve customers and tap into opportunities in the post Covid-19 world. 

Similarly, Delta has found that its cargo flights have become more important than ever in the wake of the pandemic. With the aim of becoming a “more modern, more nimble” airline, Delta’s main goals during the pandemic were taking care of its people and customers while preserving liquidity and reducing costs. This seems to have paid off as in its recent financial results cargo revenues improved 5 per cent sequentially and were up 12 per cent versus the same period in 2019. 

Delta claims to be the first US airline to launch cargo-only flights, primarily using A350, 777 and A330 aircraft to take advantage of the better cargo capacity. Walpole also notes that Delta was the first US airline to fly cargo in the cabin (on a 777) after “lengthy” FAA authorisation. Since launching the service in March 2020, the airline has operated approximately 2,550 cargo flights.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, our strong partner network will also be increasingly important,” adds Walpole. “We have the best partners in the business, with Korean Air being our key partner in the transpacific. We will be working with them to create extended networks, as well as focus on building business integration with strong service recovery.” 

As proof of this, the airline recently announced a new route between North America and Asia, to launch in the autumn. Through its joint venture with Korean Air, Delta’s new service from Portland International Airport to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport will enable the airline to carry more cargo between the continents and continue its modernisation strategy.

Even with lockdowns easing and vaccines being distributed, it is clear that airlines’ struggles are not yet over. It will take time to fully restore services to pre-2020 levels, and in difficult times cargo has been an essential lifeline for many – that looks as though it will continue for the foreseeable future. 

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