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Regulatory flexibility needed to keep supply lines open, airfreight industry says

A FedEx cargo plane from China unloading personal protective equipment at Chicago O’Hare Airport. (Image: FEMA/Alexis Hall)

(Updated April 10, 6:45 P.M. EST with details on British Airways)

More governments need to relax regulations and simplify permitting procedures for air cargo charters so that vital medical resources can quickly be delivered to areas dealing with the deadly coronavirus outbreak, industry officials say.

Quarantines and lockdowns in many countries limit the ability of logistics providers to respond across borders unless there are exemptions, and normal requirements for granting access rights to air carriers can take time to process.

The situation is more urgent than a typical disaster because the scope of the pandemic is global and a huge amount of cargo capacity evaporated when airlines canceled most passenger flights, which have the advantage of running on regular schedules and offering space below passengers’ feet for shipments.

“Around the world the front-line health workers who fight against COVID- 19 need to be continuously supplied with necessary medical equipment and protective material. It is our collective duty to keep these supply lines open by continuing air cargo operations,” Paul Molinaro, chief of operations support and logistics at the World Health Organization, said in a statement. “The scale-down of air passenger flow is seriously hurting our scheduled freight operations. We call on airline companies and governments to join the global effort to ensure dedicated freight capacity continues to operate on previously high volume passenger routes that are now closed down.”

Many nations have supported the industry with early financial aid and suspension of slot rules — essentially flight quotas airlines are required to maintain at high-volume airports or risk losing slots to competitors — but airfreight interests say governments need to do more.

To avoid delays for lifesaving medical goods, disinfectants and key staples, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is urging governments to exempt air cargo crews who do not interact with the public from 14-day quarantine requirements and to introduce fast-track procedures for overflight and landing rights, particularly in key Asian manufacturing hubs such as China, Korea and Japan.

Charter flights are arranged on an ad hoc basis and require a specific permit to land in a given country, as well as permission to fly through the airspace of other countries that may restrict certain types of goods crossing their borders. Typically, companies book charter aircraft weeks in advance because they know they need to move a time-sensitive shipment, such as a hot new digital gadget. That gives the airline plenty of time to apply for the appropriate licenses.

In a humanitarian crisis, charter permits are needed immediately, “so governments need to really focus on the fact that they’re going to get a large number of charter requests and we urge them to expedite those as quickly as possible,” Glyn Hughes, IATA’s global head of cargo, told reporters during a phone briefing last month.

Some countries issued travel restrictions and excluded air cargo up front, but others made blanket decisions and adjusted later. That’s what happened when Djibouti and Somalia closed their borders to all flights, then reversed themselves for cargo flights after the International Civil Aviation Organization and private groups complained.

The Wall Street Journal reported that FedEx (NYSE: FDX) and UPS (NYSE: UPS) are facing disruptions caused by stricter Chinese coronavirus testing procedures — including nasal swabs — and quarantines of flight crews, and that the companies have appealed to the Trump administration to intervene.

“We try to work with governments to present the benefits that air cargo supply chains can bring in terms of protecting their citizens and getting needed supplies out,” Hughes said.

Industry officials emphasize that when air carriers make stops in countries with a large outbreak, they often operate with multiple crews on board to avoid bringing on new pilots and engineers from the local area. But stay-home orders and curfews impact airfreight beyond the aircraft itself because ground handlers and truck drivers have difficulty even getting to the warehouse to work.

Hughes cited examples in Central America and India where emergency medical supplies encountered landside delays getting to the airport because of local lockdowns.

IATA and The International Air Cargo Association say aviation authorities should also grant temporary traffic rights for cargo operations where bilateral or multilateral restrictions may apply, remove economic impediments, such as overflight charges and parking fees, and suspend night-time curfews for cargo flights so carriers have more operational flexibility.

The Civil Aviation Authority of China, for example, recently gave permission to reopen British Airways’ regular Shanghai to London-Heathrow passenger route for cargo use.

Industry officials gave high marks to the European Commission for providing guidance to member states on how to quickly grant permissions and exempt air crews from quarantine measures.

The recent relief flight organized by the New England Patriots professional football team underscores the regulatory challenges facing emergency charter operations. According to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the deal, the Patriots, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and the U.S. State Department sent letters to the Chinese Consulate in New York asking for a waiver to allow the humanitarian mission and stated that no member of the crew would leave the aircraft. China granted the waiver, but required the crew to obtain visas. Pictures were quickly taken and rushed by air back to New York.

Eventually, the Patriots’ plane — a Boeing 767 that normally is used to fly the team to away games — was granted a three-hour window in Shenzhen to load 1.2 million N95 face masks purchased by the state of Massachusetts and team owner Robert Kraft.

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]