Cargo flights forming the backbone of COVID-19 relief efforts

13 May 2020

Flightradar24 Note: In a global time of need, air cargo has stepped in to get badly needed medical supplies, food, and other essentials where they need to be. With Flightradar24 data, ICF examines how cargo carriers initially responded to the shock of COVID-19 and what they’re doing now.
With more than 50% of global air freight typically transported by passenger aircraft, the massive draw-down in scheduled passenger flights has resulted in significant disruptions to supply chains.

International air freight transport is highly seasonal, with peaks typically occurring in November and early December as retail inventories are built up during the Christmas shopping season in Europe and the Americas. Capacity and traffic decline during the early portion of a new calendar year before ramping up again in advance of the Chinese New Year during which factories in China and several other Asian countries are generally shut down for around two weeks. Following Chinese New Year, international cargo capacity to/from China ramps up again as global inventories are rebuilt.

In 2020, Chinese New Year was celebrated on January 25th and most unfortunately the celebrations overlapped with the shutdown and travel restrictions in order to prevent the further spread of Covid-19 within China. The draw down in international freight capacity to/from China (measured in Freight Ton Kilometers or FTKs) resulting from these two events was slightly larger in size than 2019’s draw down in the rolling seven-day average capacity by year shown below. However, while capacity has typically rebounded after approximately four weeks in the two prior years, in 2020 the reduction in capacity persisted for closer to six weeks and did not fully recover until early March. International cargo capacity in 2020 surged post-Chinese New Year as cargo flights ramped up to replace some of the belly capacity lost as airlines grounded their fleets around the world and the virus spread to Asia and the Americas requiring shipments of medical supplies and materials produced in China.

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