Even with the recent slide in global air cargo volumes, there are areas of the business that continue to take off… literally. New automobiles for testing and show, luxury cars and Formula 1 racing markets are niche sectors that keep all-cargo aircraft on the move year-round. Even for individuals – if you have ever rented a car overseas on vacation, found it not to your liking for whatever reason, and just wished you could have brought your own comfortable car along from home, there are airlines that can make that happen. They can fly your car in the belly of the airplane as you ride above, and arrange all the paperwork and necessary shipping details from origin to destination, including delivery to your hotel. And when you finish your holiday, they will fly your vehicle back with you as well, and deliver it to your home!
So how do all the pieces come together to meet many unique shipper needs and support flying cars around the world? While airlines do fly cars, few would imagine that primary distribution of finished automobiles from manufacturers to dealers or distributors would be done by air freight, and they would largely be correct. Most finished automobiles move via surface transportation, i.e. ocean, rail and/or truck. Why? It’s cheaper, of course.
The specialized and growing business for moving finished vehicles by air supports a variety of markets and niches. Time factors, production deadlines, product launches, buyer preference, convenience, security, confidentiality and total cost considerations drive the decision to use air. It’s a complex, fascinating and highly tailored business, one that airlines and freight forwarders design specialty products around. It can be lucrative as well, so they work very closely with shippers and automobile owners to ensure complete satisfaction in order to earn repeat business.
So what are these niches and what do forwarders and airlines do to service them?
Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)
Large multinational automobile manufacturers use air freight for finished vehicles for several reasons. Testing automobiles in various climates and specific countries is a major and ongoing reason to use air freight. For example, foreign-made cars loaded with sensitive testing equipment are flown to the U.S. from their overseas place of assembly and transported by truck to testing grounds in Arizona, California or Utah for hot desert climate conditions, or to various testing grounds in northern Minnesota or Upper Michigan for cold weather testing. Then cars that have been tested are flown back home to get the results further analyzed. In regard to some countries, gaining approval to sell specific automobile models in those countries (including Brazil, India, China and Russia) means successfully testing automobiles in-country, and air freight serves a key role in helping that happen.
Many of these cars are prototypes or concept vehicles for which confidentiality is an absolute requirement. Cars transported by air for testing are often accompanied by drivers and teams of engineers. There is a strict schedule to get cars ready for new model years or for commercial events. Air freight is the quickest and most secure way to meet key deadlines, economize on driver and engineering staff time, and minimize instances in which the car is visible and accessible to competitors’ prying eyes or cameras.
Major auto shows such as the Detroit Auto Show, Chicago Auto Show or Dubai International Motor Show are another venue in which prototypes, concept cars and models are shipped by air around the world by OEMs. Secrecy and confidentiality until just that right moment are key here as well. In some cases, units may be shipped door-to-door in specially constructed containers that meet aircraft manufacturers’ specifications, or otherwise camouflaged in film that may allow driver and front windshield access but hide styling lines or other competitive features and secrets until just the right time.
There are several large international forwarding firms that have deep automotive forwarding and supply chain expertise that actively pursue both air and ocean freight from the world’s car companies. Multinational companies like DHL, DB Schenker, Kuehne + Nagel and regional experts like the U.K.’s Metro Shipping maintain automotive product verticals and provide numerous tailored logistics services, not only for finished vehicles but also for parts and assemblies. These companies typically develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) with each of their OEM customers and tailored handling processes for specific automobiles.
Maintaining security for the products within forwarder and airline warehouses includes segregated space for autos and policies regarding staff use of mobile phones and cameras when such cars are inside. For example, Achim Glass, Head of Global Automotive Vertical for Swiss-based Kuehne + Nagel, notes its Stuttgart, Germany warehouse features dedicated auto storage areas, non-transparent fencing and drone defense installations to prevent photographs taken from above. Trucks delivering a confidential vehicle can fully enter the enclosed cage area and unload into a secure container while security cameras are temporarily turned off.
Special projects of all kinds
Another area in which shipments of automobiles by air take place frequently are overseas projects such as oil drilling and exploration, construction, movie shoots, security support, special events, museum exhibitions and relief work. Vehicle shipments are often accompanied by other project materials, and the shippers may be the contractors, movie studios, sponsoring organizations or relief agencies actually doing the work or managing the event. For work at remote sites, these moves could be larger and heavier duty vehicles such as Land Rovers and pickup trucks, while other uses could involve vehicles of any kind. The justifications for use of air freight in these cases is faster access to remote areas and the need to complete work by certain deadlines.
The film industry also uses air freight to move vehicles to and from international locations for movie or photo shoots, especially for any custom-built automobiles such as those built for James Bond, Batman and Robin, and many other superheroes! Finally, vehicles that are customized with added armor and other security features for VIPs also tend to be good candidates for air shipment.
Individual buyers, collectors and hobbyists
From vintage vehicles to classic cars to exotics to high-end sports cars, there are collectors and hobbyists all over the world who take great pride in owning and driving them. There are major auto auction houses such as Mecum and Barrett-Jackson that deal in collectors’ items across the spectrum. For foreign buyers or sellers, specialized road transport can be arranged to or from these auctions to get that newly purchased dream car home either via sea freight or air. While air movement is certainly more expensive, it may be a small percentage of the price paid for a classic automobile.
Another niche are individuals who arrange through local dealers in the U.S. or overseas to buy their high-end luxury and sports cars in Europe and pick them up at the factory. There are several European automobile manufacturers that offer this option. With some of these automobiles, the order wait times can be several months to a year or even longer. Once you finally have that car in your hands in Europe, waiting another 30 days for surface transport to get it home may seem unbearable. As Dennis Lister, Vice President of Product and Business Development at Dubai-based Emirates Sky Cargo, noted about buying a customized high-end vehicle, “One thing in the entire process of buying a car that they [buyers] can influence, instead of waiting six to eight weeks for ocean transport once the car is finally ready, they can have it by Friday [because it is shipped by air].”
Lastly, there are those who simply prefer to take their own special cars on vacation with them, especially to Europe. Airlines in the Gulf region such as Emirates, Qatar and Etihad have rolled out premium air cargo offerings specifically for high-end vehicles such as Bentleys, Bugattis, Lamborghinis, Mercedes and Rolls-Royces for residents of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. After all, it may be difficult to rent a suitable car for your European vacation. So why not bring your own car from home, and showcase it in London, Paris or wherever? In fact, in London, the term “Supercar Season” has been coined for the June-August period, when some Middle East visitors escape the heat and look to show off their automotive delights flown in from 3,000 miles away. But Emirates SkyCargo’s Lister notes, there is an increased interest in their Wheels Select door-to-door white glove product outside the Middle East too, which takes care of all the pickup, delivery, paperwork and shipping details from start to finish, round-trip.
And once you have that dream car, there are opportunities at many different specialty shows and road rallies around the world, such as the Gumball 3000 to enjoy it and show it off, and air freight is an option some choose to make that happen. It’s a lifestyle choice for those who can afford it.
Auto racing the world over
Lastly we come to international auto racing, in which there are entire logistics and supply chains carefully planned out well in advance to move cars, parts, maintenance equipment and support teams from race to race all over the world. The best example of this is probably the Formula One (or F1), in which 10 racing teams compete in 21 races across five continents, from Australia to Monaco and from Brazil to Abu Dhabi. In some cases, races are scheduled every two weeks, but there are cases where races are scheduled on consecutive weekends, and tight logistics planning becomes even more critical to ensure that everything is broken down for shipment and arrives on time at the next race venue.
DHL has been the Official Logistics Partner for Formula One Management since 2004. It transports up to 2,000 tons of valuable and time-sensitive freight to Formula One racing locations each year. The freight includes racing cars, tires, fuel and replacement parts, transmission technology as well as marketing and hospitality management. DHL provides an end-to-end solution for race materials, and relies on multi-modal solutions, including surface and air freight. For the races within Europe, road transport is used between races, but for the “fly-away” races outside of Europe, air transport is used involving six chartered 747 all-cargo aircraft. That’s roughly 600 tons of air freight for each flyaway race. There are also less critical supplies that are pre-positioned at each F1 racing location by way of ocean freight and road transport.
Specially designed crates are used to help optimize the space on the aircraft, allowing race cars and equipment to be loaded together in cushioned sections within the same container.
In some cases, when time between races permits, race cars may be flown back to home bases in Europe for repainting or other repairs, then flown to the next racing venue.
With automobiles being flown for varying reasons and under different customs classifications, there is no single source of U.S. government trade data that clearly consolidates and accounts for it all. However, existing U.S. trade data for imported automobiles by air suggests it is much less than 1 percent of the total automotive weight imported, and thus only a very small fraction of the international air trade shown for U.S. carriers in the SONAR chart below (AIRRTM.EMEA, AIRRTM.APAC, AIRRTM.LATAM). What U.S. trade figures do indicate is that those imports by air are for pricier cars nearly five times, pound-for-pound, the value of those carried as sea freight.
Airlines and forwarders manage a lot of complexity
Moving automobiles by air is not unlike moving any other piece of sensitive, high-value freight that needs special care and handling. Airlines follow regulations issued by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to ensure the safe transport of automobiles, but often must work closely with the manufacturer or dealer to address any special care issues for the vehicle itself, such as any additional securing needed without causing scratches or rubs. Cars fly on all different types of commercial arrangements – from regularly scheduled passenger or all-cargo flights to part-charters where a special freighter stop may be made for a valuable enough load to full charters.
Fuel tanks can be no more than one-quarter full for cars to fly, otherwise the fuel must be decanted to reach that level. Depending on the airline, batteries may be disconnected or turned off with a kill switch. As cars increasingly go “green” and depend on lithium batteries, appropriate care for such batteries takes on increased priority. Most regular vehicle tires are generally not under enough pressure that they need partial deflation to fly. Cars must be inspected and cannot travel until any fluid leaks detected are fixed. Any property or personal belongings of the owner are not allowed to fly inside the car. Because of the fluids and batteries already in the car, automobiles are considered as Dangerous Goods (DG) by IATA, which requires additional and special DG paperwork from the shipper or authorized agent, as well as notifications to flight crews.
Generally, cars are secured to an airline pallet by strapping over the tires, but additional or alternative strapping, such as through the axle or to the aircraft directly may be needed depending on the auto, especially for specialized cars or older cars with hubcaps. Great care is taken to ensure no scratches or rub marks happen as the car is secured. For higher-end automobiles, Emirates makes available Car Loading Supervisors and shares its car handling expertise within its network from nine certified Emirates vehicle stations.
Air France KLM Cargo noted the additional checklists airlines, cargo handlers and forwarders use for accepting vehicles, and special protocols around key-handling as well. Airlines and handlers cannot afford any “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off” antics! Keys or key fobs must be available at origin for loading the car into containers or onto pallets and at destination for unloading the car. Losing the car keys and finding them 5,000 miles away back at flight origin is a guaranteed headache that those involved seek to avoid!
Cars and any platforms under them totaling 62 inches high or less can fly in the lower deck of both passenger and freighter aircraft. Anything taller must fly on freighter main deck aircraft. As freighters usually have more flexibility for loading and unloading (including through the nose for Boeing 747 freighters), many forwarders noted that OEMs often specify a strong preference, or even requirement, to route their specialty cargo on a freighter aircraft.
With security and confidentiality a key concern, airlines and handlers typically designate a secure area of an airline warehouse under constant watch from monitoring equipment. Airlines such as Air France KLM Cargo offers “Cartainer Service,” a concealed car container for prototypes, clay models, fiberglass show cars and new releases. Some forwarders may offer their own branded protective transport method for their clients, which can be moved from origin to airport and then transported to the show itself at final destination without being seen.
Depending on the size and value of the vehicle, airlines will use either a 10-foot PMC or 20-foot PGA pallet for automobiles. Some airlines may choose to use the heavier weight PMH pallet instead of the PMC for better weight distribution of the car. Some smaller cars such as Smart Cars can be loaded two to an airline pallet, and others such as Mini-Coopers are loadable two at a time onto car racks that help cut down shipping expenses. Specialized automotive racks like this are provided by companies like ACL Airshop. Jos Jacobsen, ACL’s Managing Director-Global Leasing and Chief Technology Officer, noted, “We provide air cargo shipping equipment for exotic cars, thoroughbred horses, just about anything… through a global network at more than 50 airports on six continents.”
Cars are subject to normal local air cargo security screening techniques such as explosive trace detection or canine screening. Titles and other documents are checked by local customs officials to confirm ownership of the vehicle before shipment. Depending on origin, a minimum 24- to 72-hour hold may be imposed by customs officials to allow for registration checks, helping to prevent stolen cars from being shipped overseas.
Many airlines with freighters have business-to-business (B2B) specialty products designed for automotive OEMs and forwarders that ship automobiles on behalf of their clients. For example, Emirates markets a B2B automotive product called Wheels, Cargolux has CV Power, Lufthansa Cargo has Care and Air France KLM Cargo also calls its product Wheels.
Larger multinational forwarders typically focus their efforts around OEMs, other commercial shippers, and organizations with large sponsored events such as races. The Detroit-based automotive specialty team from DB Schenker, a large German-based multinational forwarder, noted the very detailed standard operating procedures for automotive handling and confidential handling that are involved in working with its OEM customers. Kuehne + Nagel’s Glass commented how intensively OEMs audit forwarders on their ability to handle confidential movements, even to the point where service providers must have rolling shutter gates at their warehouses that exceed 1.4 meters per second, to minimize the risk of paparazzi shooting photographs. There are smaller or niche market forwarders that typically cater to individuals shipping their autos.
Grant Liddell, Manager of Business Development for Metro Shipping, noted there are many value-added services from forwarders that go into an international door-to-door automobile movement, including documentation and carnets that allow a vehicle to travel through multiple countries before returning home.
Getting a lift to and from the airport
Getting that special car to and from the airport often means using specialty automotive trucking firms such as Michigan-based Reliable Carriers. Reliable features enclosed vehicles for OEMs, engineering firms, movie studios, individuals and others shipping specialty automobiles domestically by surface or in connection with an airport move. Shannon Noyes, Director of Business Development at Reliable Carriers, notes that they seek high-caliber TWIC-carrying (Transportation Worker Identification Card) drivers with excellent communication skills to act as liaison between client, freight forwarder, airline and cargo operations personnel at the airport.
What are the trends for future industry growth? Shannon notes they are seeing far more autonomous, hybrid and electrified units moving in and out of the U.S. New technologies means more testing, more approvals to be gained and more shows to market new concepts. The future looks bright for this “racy” part of the air cargo business.