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US airforwarders adjust to new COVID business environment (with video)

Air and truck capacity, airport congestion top industry’s concerns, survey shows

A Qatar Airways cargo jet gets unloaded at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The coronavirus pandemic has been a mixed bag for U.S.-based airfreight forwarders, with lost business partially offset by new opportunities, and more ingenuity required to bypass transportation obstacles, according to a survey of several dozen companies.

Nearly 60% of members that manage airfreight shipments for cargo owners say the economic downturn from the virus outbreak has washed away some business, with a quarter reporting substantial drops in demand, the informal poll by the Airforwarders Association (AfA) showed. An additional quarter reported their volumes had increased to varying degrees.

The trade association represents 275 companies; 65 responded to the questionnaire.

Executive Director Brandon Fried speculated that business went up or down depending on the niche markets forwarders specialize in. 

Hassett Logistics, a full-service transportation company based outside Chicago that specializes in domestic airfreight, exemplifies the range of business fortunes. The firm’s trade event logistics business shut down immediately with COVID because no one was attending concerts, sporting events, entertainment shows or trade shows. But the specialized products unit, which handles rollouts of new products or building improvements for retail stores, experienced strong demand, and tenders to move e-commerce shipments skyrocketed, CEO Michelle Halkerston said in a video discussion during the American Shipper Global Trade Tech summit last week. 

The company has cross-trained employees in areas that had no work so they could support other teams, bought electrostatic sprayers to sanitize workspaces, and followed government prescriptions for social distancing to maintain operations, she said.

Among survey respondents, 70% advised that they can usually find airfreight capacity, but that it takes a little longer because there are fewer frequencies on key routes because passenger airlines are still flying limited schedules due to the destruction of travel demand. And two-thirds reported some level of difficulty sourcing line-haul trucking to move goods between distribution hubs, a reflection of the extremely tight truckload market.

Challenges were fewest with pickup and delivery services, according to the AfA. 

Qatar Airways cargo jet being serviced at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston this summer (Source: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

About half its members reported significant ongoing delays dropping off outbound loads or recovering freight at airport facilities. One respondent summed up the situation by saying, “The quality of airline ground handling has significantly decreased during the pandemic. Longer wait times, missing cargo, forklift punctures, etc.”

As previously reported, major passenger airports such as Chicago O’Hare, New York JFK and Los Angeles International Airport are being swamped with all-cargo planes full of COVID-related supplies and other goods. Ground handlers have cut staff during the pandemic to save money and their infrastructure is predominantly geared for smaller volumes associated with passenger aircraft. And when airlines stuff boxes in the passenger cabin for cargo-only flights, much more labor is required to load and unload aircraft, further straining the system.

A growing number of freight forwarders are shifting some inbound airfreight to tier-two airports that are less congested and more cargo-friendly. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch. Contact: [email protected]


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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]