Most of the buzz around the damage covid-19 pandemic has had done to aviation has centered around passenger travel. That’s not surprising, as fears about transmission through travel and just sitting aboard planes are not unfounded and flights have cratered as a result. But while passengers are staying home, some planes are still flying. They’re flying a lot.
This video from Youtube channel Wendover Productions gives a detailed picture of just how the Coronavirus pandemic and the economic impact that has followed closely in its footsteps has fundamentally changed the way goods are transported by air. It turns out that the changes at play here are far from superficial and could potentially begin to reshape air transport (both cargo and passenger) as the world exits this crisis and begins to recover.
As the covid-19 pandemic mushroomed in severity at the beginning of March, travel bans spread from country to country in an attempt to contain outbreaks, long-haul passenger flights the world over were drastically cut back. Without passengers flying, airlines couldn’t justify maintaining the schedules they were operating before the crisis. Now, if these flights were just carrying passengers and their baggage, it would make sense for the airlines to just wait it out, but passenger airlines don’t just fly people. The holds of passenger flights actually carry about 45% of all air freight. And that’s where things get complicated.
If the pool of flights that carry nearly half of the air freight worldwide is shrunken down to a fraction of what it normally is, the demand for air freight would go up on its own. And it did. On transatlantic routes, the combination of the high percentage of air cargo carried by commercial passenger flights and the near-total reduction in service resulted in around a 50% drop in capacity.
Now, when you consider that the lockdown policies in place around the world have slowed economic activity, you would think that this drop in capacity would be matched by a similar decrease in demand for shipping. But this crisis is unique, and to fight it, communities around the world need supplies. and they need it immediately.
This demand for personal protective equipment, specialized medical devices like ventilators, decontamination equipment has turned what would have been a dip in demand for air freight capacity into a massive challenge to meet demand along many corridors.
So, in this situation where demand for air cargo (particularly lightweight finished goods like masks, gloves, and medical devices) is up, fuel costs have tanked, and many airlines are forbidden from reducing workforce costs while governments attempt to keep airline employees employed as part of industry stimulus, the incentive to expand cargo service has emerged. In fact, while demand for cargo service did drop a little (15%), capacity dropped a little farther at 23%.
What that has resulted in is many airlines flying all-cargo flights for the first time in years, and even doing what they can to fill passenger cabins with cargo without having to spend precious downtime and resources reconfiguring planes as well. Luckily, essential cargo like masks and other protective equipment is lightweight. Aside from the bottleneck of having to load and unload the passenger cabin by hand, putting boxes on seats seems to work for many airlines pressing their passenger jets into cargo duty. If fuel costs are down, passenger airlines can stay in the black operating their passenger planes on freight-only services even if these planes can carry far less than their freighter counterparts.
These conditions have led some airlines to press their crews and planes into services that are far from the norm, with smaller planes flying long distances to make sure that remote communities in places like Greenland and Saint Helena have the support they need to contend with the pandemic. Other airlines are also using smaller planes intended to ply short-haul routes into long-distance service, with airlines like Wizz Air flying their Airbus A321s more than 9000 kilometers one-way to collect medical supplies in China for use back in Hungary.
These flights have made sense as demand for sensitive cargo necessary to stem the spread of the pandemic has remained steady. While the pandemic seems to show no signs of letting up in some parts of the world, other areas are now attempting to plan for a post-viral reality that may require some changes from the pre-pandemic status quo. Some predict that the boost in demand for air cargo will drop off as quickly as arrived, putting airlines who have reorganized themselves to contend with the current demand at a setback to recovery.
But others aren’t so sure. While they do believe passenger demand will likely remain soft (especially if no one figures out how to keep passengers socially distant from one another on-board), they’re more bullish on the prospects for air freight after the pandemic. After all, there will be plenty of terrestrial barriers to transport in place as some regions emerge from the pandemic more slowly than others, meaning that air cargo will likely be a more attractive option for time to come.
Luckily, should this scenario occur, where passenger volume is down while cargo volume remains strong, there is an option. It’s called a Combi and it’s essentially a plane that is half passenger airliner, half cargo jet. Dutch airline KLM has been fond of using this concept, which is featured most prominently on a set of 747-400s introduced in 1989. These planes feature what would be a standard 747-400 cabin except the rear third of the plane is totally dedicated to cargo. It has to make do without the giant opening nose that dedicated 747 freighters feature, true, but it still is unparalleled in terms of cargo capacity for a passenger jet. If you’re having trouble imagining it, picture an airworthy, quad-jet El Camino. People up front, stuff out back. See? Simple.
KLM is scheduled to retire its Combis in January of next year, but I think there’s a real future for the configuration and others agree. It seems like the perfect blend of capacity and flexibility that airlines struggling to find footing after the crisis would seek out. But then again, I thought the El Camino should come back too. It never did. But maybe the business case Combi will be a bit more persuasive.