Air cargo stutters, then responds to coronavirus pandemic

Passenger-based carriers are repurposing their flights


Many pharma shipments—especially those requiring time-sensitive, temperature-controlled shipping, use air cargo, both domestically and internationally. And while the global air-cargo business has mostly been operating in a customary fashion (except for restrictions on airport receiving offices and some locations, in order to protect workers), air cargo based on passenger fleets have been hard hit: US airlines have cut flights by 50% or more in the wake of the pandemic.

Now, some airlines are repurposing their passenger flights to cargo-only. On March 22, United announced that it had begun flying a portion of its Boeing 777 and 787 fleet as dedicated cargo charter aircraft to transfer freight to and from US hubs and key international business locations. “The first of these freight-only flights departed on March 19 from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) to Frankfurt International Airport (FRA) with the cargo hold completely full, with more than 29,000 lbs. of goods.”

American Airlines announced that “We’re putting our grounded passenger aircraft to work. On Friday, March 20, we launched our first cargo-only charter flight since 1984 to move cargo between the United States and Europe, ensuring the world’s goods continue to get where they need to go in the midst of COVID-19.”

Delta Cargo made a similar announcement, that “amid the current environment, Delta Cargo is offering charter capability upon request to meet your company’s unique shipping needs.”

All-cargo companies with extensive operations in healthcare products delivery are applying their business continuity plans while limiting staff exposure, but say that service is continuing with interruptions minimized. UPS instituted a temporary peak surcharge for some of its expedited flights from China (where manufacturing operations are reviving); its Marken subsidiary, focused on clinical research logistics, happened to have opened a new service center in Ireland just as the global pandemic took hold.

As United noted, the situation is “fluid,” so shippers should keep checking with carriers to see how flight schedules are changing.