On Wednesday, United Airlines declared it had operated an impressive 5,000 cargo-only flights since mid-March. In the past five months, in lieu of passengers, the airline has transported nearly 170 million pounds of supplies across the globe. With airfreight rates reaching all-time highs in May, no wonder United’s cargo revenue was up 36% in the second quarter.
It has indeed been a year of unexpected events. If someone would have said at the beginning of 2020 that before fall, major US passenger airlines would be competing in which one was operating the most cargo-only flights, would anyone have believed them? But then, COVID happened and turned everything we took for granted about commercial aviation upside down.
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Over 5,000 cargo-only flights in five months
United Airlines has recruited some of its 777s and 787 Dreamliners in a cargo-only effort to help mitigate the historically negative impact of COVID-19. And they have been busy indeed. Since March 19th, United has operated over 5,000 cargo-only flights, transporting nearly 170 million pounds of cargo.
Jan Krems, President of United Cargo, stated on Wednesday that he was very excited to celebrate this milestone, adding that it had not come without its fair share of trials.
“These past few months have created challenges that I have never seen in my 30-plus years of experience working within the air cargo and freight forwarding industry,” Mr Krems said in a statement seen by Simple Flying.
Medical supplies and military cargo
Over half of the cargo transported by United since March has been medical supplies such as personal protective equipment (PPE), pharmaceuticals, and other medical goods. However, United has also maintained cargo-links with US military bases across the world. The carrier has transported supplies to places such as Guam and Kwajalein, and mail to Frankfurt for further distribution to bases in the Middle East.
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) April 2, 2020
In its second-quarter report, United’s cargo revenue was up 36%, to $402 million, which puts it way ahead of its commercial-turned-temporary-freighter competitors. While American Airlines’ cargo share of overall revenue increased from 2% to 8%, it was only $130 million, down by 41%. Delta Air Lines suffered slightly worse with cargo revenue dropping by 42%, to $108 million.
Airfreight prices soared in May
As what is known as a “capacity crunch” (meaning not enough available space for the demand on transportation of goods) continues, airfreight rates remain high. During peak levels in May, the shipping price per kilogram between China and the US reached over $7, up from $3.50 at the beginning of March. Rates have since softened and were down to just above $5 at the end of last month.
In July, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) published a research note predicting that the crunch would take some time to “unwind” as scheduled passenger services are returning only gradually. IATA further estimates that cargo will contribute to 26% of airline industry revenue in 2020, up from 19% in 2019. What the overall revenue figures will look like, one shudders to think.