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Air cargo’s importance magnified during COVID-19 crisis

Air freight carriers are becoming essential to the supply chain as they begin moving time-sensitive shipments, including medical supplies.

Air Canada announced it has started using its aircraft to operate cargo-only flights to Europe, with other flights planned for Latin America and South America.

The airline says the aircraft have no passengers, but instead are carrying time-sensitive shipments, including medical supplies.

The flights come as Air Canada slashes capacity due to the drop in travel due to the steps taken to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The first cargo-only flights departed from Toronto for Frankfurt, London and Amsterdam this past week.

The flights were operated using Boeing 787 aircraft capable of carrying 35 tonnes of cargo.

Air Canada says it’s also exploring opportunities to offer the service domestically including using smaller Air Canada Express regional aircraft.

“Air Canada Cargo has long served as a vital link in global supply chains and with the disruption arising from the COVID-19 pandemic our capabilities are more important than ever,” said Tim Strauss, vice-president of cargo at Air Canada.

“Although we have announced very significant temporary capacity reductions and our passenger flights are largely dedicated to bringing Canadians home, Air Canada’s aircraft and our expertise in handling cargo are valuable assets that we can use to move medical supplies and other essential goods to keep the world economy going.”

While cargo continues to move, capacity remains an issue as the COVID-19 crisis has seen almost the entire world-wide passenger aircraft fleet grounded; a fleet which normally transports almost half of total air cargo shipments.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents some 290 airlines comprising 82 per cent of global air traffic, has called on governments to take urgent measures to ensure that vital air cargo supply lines remain open, efficient and effective.

“Air cargo is on the front line, not only fighting COVID-19 but ensuing that global supply chains are maintained for the most time-sensitive materials including food and other products purchased online in support of quarantine and social distancing policies implemented by states. But we can only continue to do this if we work together with the support of governments. Keeping supply lines open also supports jobs in local economies for example producers of perishables in Africa and Latin America. We are stronger together,” said Glyn Hughes, IATA Global Head of Air Cargo.

Loaded with around 30 tons of freight, a Lufthansa Airbus A330 passenger aircraft landed in Frankfurt from Shanghai, carrying medical supplies. In addition to the cargo compartments of the airplane, the cabin including the stowage compartments above the seats was also loaded. (Lufthansa Cargo AG)

To support these efforts, governments need to remove key obstacles by:

  • Introducing fast track procedures for overflight and landing permits for cargo operations, particularly in key manufacturing hubs in Asia — China, Korea and Japan — in response to the increased number of cargo charters replacing withdrawn passenger operations.
  • Exempting flight crew members who do not interact with the public from 14-day quarantine requirements to ensure cargo supply chains are maintained
  • Supporting temporary traffic rights for cargo operations where restrictions may apply
  • Removing economic impediments, such as overflight charges, parking fees, and slot restrictions to support air cargo operations during these unprecedented times
  • Removing operating hour curfews for cargo flights to facilitate the most flexible global air cargo network operations

Airlines are taking extraordinary measures to ensure the flow of vital goods by air, including

Delta, American and United airlines, which have started cargo-only flights, using passenger aircraft domestically and internationally to bolster depressed global airfreight capacity.

In Europe, Lufthansa Cargo recently landed an Airbus A330 passenger aircraft from Shanghai loaded with medical goods, including masks and other protective equipment.

In addition to the cargo compartments of the airplane, the cabin including the stowage compartments above the seats was also loaded.

“Due to the far-reaching cancellations of passenger connections, valuable airfreight capacity is lacking,” said the company. “The Lufthansa Group and Lufthansa Cargo are therefore looking into the possibility of operating further flights exclusively for cargo transport on passenger aircraft.”



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