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COVID-19: airport freight bottoms out but some steadying
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COVID-19: airport freight bottoms out but some steadying

While there may be very few passengers willing to fly anywhere right now – even if they could – and equally, few airlines there to take them, many eyes will be on developments in the airfreight sector, which struggled badly in 2019 as a result of trade wars and other factors.

Supply lanes must be kept open, and passenger aircraft are being adopted to fulfil that role, even when still configured as passenger aircraft.

Few airports have anything other than a steep cargo volume decline curve during Jan to Apr-2020, although it was at its steepest in different months, depending on the airport’s location. The majority of them appear to have ‘bottomed out’ now, although whether the growth curve will be as positive as the one being presented is anyone’s guess.

Freight volume is often taken as a precursor to what will happen in the passenger segment and it languished throughout 2019. Statistics are skewed by the necessity to ship vital supplies across the world but beyond that, figures will be examined closely to see if there will be a freight-led recovery for airlines.

This report covers the top 20 cargo airports worldwide by volume and how that volume is varying according to current global and local circumstances.

Airlines are using passenger aircraft for freight, ad hoc
If there are any “winners” in the current situation, it is the freight airlines, which have an important job to do in keeping global supply lines open, and the airports that service them.

Bellyhold cargo space on passenger aircraft is limited, and unless an aircraft is in a ‘combi’ version already formally converting it to freight operations, such space is costly and time-consuming and would need eventually to be reversed anyway, also at a time and cost premium.

Even so, United Airlines in the U.S. and Lufthansa are among several airlines now using passenger aircraft to carry cargo only, on an ad-hoc basis, placing it in aisles, on seats, in galleys and in overhead lockers.

So for now, the global freight-handling airports and the dedicated aircraft that service them have been thrust into the limelight in a way that they probably never envisaged they would be.

For hub and spoke – read hub and feeder
For cargo operations, airports can be categorised as ‘hub and feeder’, where in the passenger domain it is ‘hub and spoke’. Especially so in international operations, where the hub and spoke system continues to be the dominant operating model for scheduled flights, both passenger and cargo.

Larger aircraft are used on long haul international routes, while smaller aircraft serve domestic points and close international origins and destinations.

This system allows shipments between origin/destination pairs that could not support direct, point-to-point, services. It also provides for more frequent services from the hubs to the various international origins and destinations. The trend towards more fuel efficient modern aircraft operating thin routes between cargo airports has not yet developed to the same degree as it has in the passenger segment, and cargo aircraft tend to be older anyway; some of them are passenger conversions.

There are few freight-only airports
There are few airports in the world that handle freight only. One of them is Montreal’s Mirabel Airport, but payload capacity (kg) there has almost halved since 2016.

There are many airports around the world, however, where cargo of one form or another is – or was – of equal or greater importance than passenger traffic.

Examples include East Midlands Airport in the UK, Frankfurt Hahn in Germany, Vatry Airport in France (another that has lost traffic), Maastricht-Aachen in the Netherlands, Seletar Airport in Singapore and Upington Airport in South Africa, which mainly exists to handle grape exports.

Two of them, Hahn and Vatry, attempted to secure business that primary airports (Frankfurt International and Paris CDG) could not handle because of slot restraints that have since been resolved or eased.

Two of the best examples of mixed passenger/freight business are in the world’s Top 20 by cargo tonnage. They are Memphis (#2) and Louisville (#7) airports, which would be insignificant in the overall scheme of things if not for the fact that they were the main bases of the parcels logistics companies FedEx and UPS respectively.

None of the top 20 cargo airports only handles cargo. The following charts, taken from CAPA/OAG data, describe weekly total cargo payload for each of the top 20 cargo airports in 2018 (formal 2019 figures have yet to be released), from position #1 to position #20. Additionally, the growth curve is extrapolated predictively up to six months from week commencing 30-Mar-2020.

In all cases the 2020 line is the green one. The dotted green line is what airlines file as their planned schedules, and in the current environment this is often changing weekly…

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