How COVID-19 Has Increased Frankfurt’s Importance As A Cargo Hub

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed various operational trends across the airline industry. Passenger numbers have fallen sharply, sometimes enough to force airlines to prematurely retire larger aircraft. Meanwhile, the cargo market has become hugely important in keeping the world moving. One airport that exemplifies this boom is Frankfurt.

Lufthansa Cargo MD-11 Frankfurt
Lufthansa Cargo, whose fleet features four McDonnell Douglas MD-11F trijet aircraft, is based at Frankfurt. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

Already a hub for cargo and pharmaceuticals

Frankfurt International Airport (FRA) has seen increased importance as a cargo and pharmaceutical hub over the last 12 months. However, it has partly been able to do so due to having already been a major European center for these two markets.

In a statement yesterday, Air Cargo Community Frankfurt declared that the airport is “optimally positioned” to be “Europe’s number one pharma-hub.” This is down to several factors that reach beyond the boundaries of the airport itself.

One of these is its proximity to pharmaceutical industry leaders. Indeed, the press release reports that “a myriad of globally active pharmaceutical companies are located within a 250 km radius, including well-known producers of COVID-19 vaccines.”

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

Lufthansa Cargo MD-11 Frankfurt Getty
Even before the pandemic struck, Frankfurt played a significant role as a cargo hub. Photo: Getty Images

Specialist infrastructure

Particularly nowadays, it is useful for an airport like Frankfurt International to be surrounded by pharmaceutical industry leaders. However, for a successful collaboration between the medical and airfreight sectors to occur, the airport needs to have suitable infrastructure to accommodate this precious cargo.

Fortunately, Frankfurt comfortably fills this requirement. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of transporting coronavirus vaccines by air is the ability to keep them at the right temperatures. Certain vaccines require storage in very cold conditions, for which there is no better airport than Frankfurt. Indeed, the aforementioned press release reports that FRA boasts “the world’s largest temperature-controlled infrastructure at an airport.”

Adapting operations

Last month, the increased demand for airfreight during the pandemic resulted in Frankfurt experiencing its “highest-ever January freight revenues – despite reduced capacity in the air.” This might seem an odd statement – after all, with fewer passenger flights operating, does this not leave more space for cargo flights?

Virgin Atlantic 747 Cargo Hold
Frankfurt previously received 40% of its cargo in the bellies of passenger aircraft. The present crisis has forced carriers to adapt their operations due to the drop in passenger flights. Photo: Jake Hardiman – Simple Flying

This factor does indeed reduce congestion in the air and on the ground. However, it overlooks a crucial aspect of Frankfurt’s cargo operations. This is the fact that, typically in Frankurt, “around 40% of the cargo is transported in the lower decks of passenger aircraft.”

Therefore, the reduced number of passenger flights currently operating could have threatened the flow of airfreight in and out of Frankfurt. However, the Air Cargo Community reports that:

Since March 2020, an additional 9,500 passenger aircraft carrying only freight have transported PPE, pharmaceuticals, and industrial and commercial goods in and out of Frankfurt.”

These temporarily-converted ‘preighter‘ aircraft have been a crucial innovation during the pandemic. At face value, they have played a vital role in keeping the world moving by transporting cargo despite the lack of passengers flights. However, they have also kept pilots and aircraft active, leading to healthier industry-wide usage figures.

What do you make of Frankfurt’s operational adaptations in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic? Have you ever flown through Germany’s busiest airport? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!