Watch Now

Reversal of fortune: Capacity drains from air cargo market again

New wave of COVID infections forces airlines to pull back flight operations

Air Canada is temporarily suspending flights to Mexico and the Caribbean because of COVID concerns. (Photo: Air Canada)

Tight capacity has been a reality for the airfreight market since the start of the COVID pandemic, but after months of gradual supply improvement the situation has taken a turn for the worse.

Nearly 40% of available airlift disappeared last April, but by the end of 2020 the year-over-year gap was halved as passenger airlines selectively added flights and all-cargo carriers operated more aircraft and flights.

But with a global resurgence of COVID cases and the spread of highly contagious mutant viruses, passenger airlines in January were forced to cut back international flying.

Global air cargo capacity fell 16% in the past two weeks compared to the same period a year ago, according to Accenture’s Seabury Consulting business. Capacity declined by double digits in many trade lanes, except between Asia and North America.

Aviation appraiser and consulting firm IBA reported a 9% drop in flight numbers across all major regions between January 11-17, with European passenger carriers dropping 16% of flights, or 10,000 trips, in the three weeks since Christmas. Even Ryanair, Europe’s busiest airline for the period, slashed capacity from 4,100 flights to 1,700 last week, a 59% drop. U.S. carriers chopped their schedules by 11%.

Since then, governments have clamped down even harder on border crossings in an effort to keep out new COVID strains from Brazil, South Africa and the U.K. 

The Biden administration last week implemented a ban on non-U.S. citizens who have been in those countries, as well as much of Europe. On Friday, Air Canada and WestJet suspended service to Mexico and the Caribbean for 90 days at the request of the Canadian government. 

Meanwhile, Air France KLM Martinair Cargo are continuing to operate freighter and widebody passenger-freighters even as the passenger side of Air France-KLM Group temporarily shut down because of new government travel restrictions and testing requirements for air crews. 

And Cathay Pacific said it would lose a quarter of its cargo capacity because of new 14-day quarantine restrictions for locally domiciled air crews. The restrictive health measures also prompted FedEx Express to relocate Hong Kong-based crews and their families to San Francisco to ride out the crisis. It is unclear if the crew juggling will impact FedEx deliveries. 

The flight reductions haven’t had a noticeable impact yet on the transpacific trade lane, with forwarder Flexport reporting capacity and demand are currently in balance. But the capacity situation is likely to change during the upcoming Chinese New Year, when carriers typically cancel freighter trips because factories close for a lengthy holiday. That could further hinder companies from using the production pause to catch up on inventory replenishment by shipping goods finished before factories close.

And shippers could find a bit less air capacity from the U.S. to Europe and the U.K. because carriers are shifting some equipment to the Latin America market to help move flowers ahead of Valentine’s Day, Flexport said in a customer update.

Getting airlift out of Europe requires use of freighters or cargo-only passenger aircraft because of the severe restrictions on passenger travel.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


Hong Kong quarantine disrupts FedEx, Cathay Pacific crews and cargo

Strong balance sheet, fed bailout put Alaska Airlines on recovery path

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 from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]