Air cargo industry on a mission to deliver for good

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At a time when air cargo capacity has been squeezed and freight rates are at its peak, there are some airlines and logistics firms that have been working to maximise capacity to deliver desperately needed medical supplies free of cost to India and other nations that are crippled with the devastating second wave of Covid-19 infections. By lending their global network and unparalleled logistics expertise to organizations with mission-critical needs in times of disaster, they are here to help communities heal, learn and thrive.

After the second wave of Covid-19 cases began to rear its ugly head across India, foreign aid poured in from various countries and organisations. India received 11,058 oxygen concentrators, 13,496 oxygen cylinders, 19 oxygen generation plants, 7,365 ventilators, Bi-PAP and about 5.3 lakh Remdesivir vials as global aid between April 27 and May 15 to combat the virus, according to an official press release.

Now that the symbolic baton has been passed on to logistics and supply chain players - to assist with the distribution of these critical medical aid and vaccines to communities around the world, they believe that they have a bigger responsibility to shoulder towards humanity. Lying low by a Covid-19 outbreak that’s decimated passenger demand, airlines and other air cargo players are the workhorses of the attempt to eradicate it, transporting tonnes of vaccine vials and humanitarian aid to every corner of the globe. While there are some players that are making a killing with sky-high rates benefitting from the increase in demand for air cargo during these dire times where capacity is limited, there are others that have decided to ferry critical aid free of cost. It’s an unprecedented task, made more difficult by the carriers’ diminished state after culling jobs, routes and aircraft to survive a crisis that’s reduced air traffic globally by an estimated 61 percent this year.

“It is our duty as a leading air cargo carrier to support impacted regions especially when it is in our capacity to do so. We are in a unique position to offer immediate humanitarian support with our large fleet of freighters, mini freighters, passenger freighters and belly-hold planes. At a time like this when millions of lives are affected, costs are simply irrelevant and our aim is to contribute as much as we can to save lives,” said Kirsten de Bruijn, senior vice president, Cargo Sales and Network Planning, Qatar Airways Cargo.

For the India initiative, Qatar Airways Cargo (QR Cargo) flew 300 tonnes of mostly oxygen supplies to Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru for free, with another 300 tonnes of British government donated goods. “I would like to commend all our teams and customers for the speed at which the first three flights were put together. All the shippers and freight forwarders from Europe, Asia, and the US were willing to help immediately when we announced the India relief initiative. It was an absolute united team effort by the entire logistics supply chain,” Kirsten added.

It is our duty as a leading air cargo carrier to support impacted regions especially when it is in our capacity to do so. At a time like this when millions of lives are affected, costs are simply irrelevant and our aim is to contribute as much as we can to save lives.                                                                                                     Kirsten de Bruijn, Qatar Airways Cargo

This was aligned to QR Cargo’s sustainability programme, WeQare, launched last year, which consists of a series of positive and impactful actions in the form of chapters. These actions are based on the core pillars of sustainability - environment, society, economy and culture and are being implemented at all levels of the cargo carrier’s business. 

Meanwhile, Emirates SkyCargo embarked on a similar initiative by launching a humanitarian airbridge offering all its available cargo capacity free of charge to NGOs on flights from Dubai to nine destinations in India. The carrier believes this will provide an important boost for medical and relief items to reach India faster. “Emirates and Emirates SkyCargo are deeply connected and committed to India. From the time that we started operations in 1985, we have been operating to India. We therefore consider it our social responsibility to facilitate the transportation of relief materials to help get India back on its feet,” remarked Dennis Lister, VP Cargo Commercial Development, Emirates SkyCargo.

Similarly, Oman Air activated an emergency cargo lift initiative to help deliver critical medical aid to India. The ‘Covid cargolifts’ was rolled out on routes to India for 15 days, in cooperation with Oman’s Foreign Ministry and the Indian community in Oman. The carrier guaranteed 10 tonnes of free cargo space on several Indian routes to assist humanitarian organizations and agencies in the transport of essential medical equipment and supplies.

While announcing this initiative, Mohammed Al Musafir, Oman Air senior vice president of commercial cargo, said, “Our cargo team is working around the clock to ensure that adequate space is available on Oman Air flights to India so that essential aid personnel and agencies receive critical medical supplies and humanitarian assistance.” While the airline will essentially waive cargo charges on all Covid-19 aid to India for 15 days, shippers are still responsible for any applicable government or customs charges, either at the point of origin or destination country.

Fedex Express, the subsidiary of the US-based FedEx Corp, operated two dedicated charter flights to India, free of cost, carrying critical medical aid, including oxygen concentrators, KN95 masks and medicines. The first flight transported more than 3,400 oxygen concentrators, converters, and nearly 265,000 KN95 masks for Direct Relief from Newark to Mumbai. The second flight on May 16 carried more than 780 oxygen concentrators, over 1.8 million KN95 masks, and medicines and pharmaceutical supplies from Newark to New Delhi. “Never before has our industry been so essential. In the face of the devastating crisis in India, we have an important purpose of helping to ensure our team members and their communities receive as much support as possible,” said Kawal Preet, president, Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa Region, FedEx Express in a media release.

FedEx, which is a member of the Global Task Force on Pandemic Response-- a public-private partnership organized by the US Chamber of Commerce and supported by the Business Roundtable, is also supporting the transportation of over 25,000 oxygen concentrators and converters through an initiative with the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum and other multinational companies.

Further, Cathay Pacific Cargo along with forwarder Expeditors and logistics company Davis Trucking partnered to offer their services free of charge for an airlift of 300,000 Covid-19 testing kits, which were a gift from the state of Oregon to India. The shipment was transported from Portland to Mumbai via Hong Kong on one of Cathay Pacific Cargo’s Boeing 747 freighters.

While different airlines have been supporting India, LATAM Cargo is on a similar mission with its Solidarity Plane Program, which provides support in South America around healthcare, the environment, protecting and preserving South America’s flora and fauna, and humanitarian aid whenever there are any natural disasters in the region. This programme has been functioning for the last 10 years. With its extensive history of operations, LATAM Cargo has created a logistical method that lets it merge cost-free transportation with commercial shipments, which is essential for ensuring long-term sustainability.

 “Although not the only one, the pandemic is one recent case. We offer the program to the governments in the countries where we operate to transport Covid-19 vaccines free of charge on regular domestic routes. The main challenge has been to keep flight availability consistent for our customers. This is why we implemented strategies that enabled us to mix commercial flights with Covid-19 vaccines and medical supply shipments,” explained María Teresa Escobar, sustainability senior manager, LATAM Cargo. This includes remaining in constant contact with the authorities to coordinate and plan the capacity of each flight as well as using passenger planes solely to move cargo. As of today, LATAM Cargo has been in cooperation with Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.

Although not the only one, the pandemic is one recent case. We offer the Solidarity Plane program to the governments in the countries where we operate to transport Covid-19 vaccines free of charge on regular domestic routes. The main challenge has been to keep flight availability consistent for our customers.                                                                                                                  Maria Teresa Escobar, LATAM Cargo

Moreover, Danish integrated shipping company Maersk has been facilitating air freight shipments to India on a zero-profit basis. Realising the need of the hour, Maersk stepped in and through its network, connected the sellers of cryogenic oxygen tanks and oxygen concentrators from around the world to the organisations that were willing to lease or buy them in India. Maersk leveraged its integrated logistics solutions from air freight, ocean freight, landside transportation to customs clearances, warehousing and distribution and digital solutions, to bringing the medical aid into India.  

 “The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us several lessons – empathy being one of the most important ones of them all. The crisis has urged us all to go beyond our business and support the society when it needs it the most. 15 of our top executives from different functions voluntarily got together in the early days of the second wave and put together ‘Project Oxygen War Room’, or POWR as they called it, to help society fight the virus,” said Vikash Agarwal, managing director, Maersk South Asia in a statement.

We have not capped the number of flights on which we will transport humanitarian assistance materials. We will do our part to support India and other markets affected by the pandemic and other crises to recover.                                                                                                                                                                   Denis Lister, Emirates SkyCargo

Commercial viability

How do these flights make commercial sense? Usually, airlines mix free transportation with commercial cargo unless the emergency requires the use of the aircraft's full capacity.

“Carrying commercial cargo on scheduled flights purely depends on the amount of relief cargo that is to be shipped. The priority is always to make sure that when we are operating a relief flight, we must fly as quickly as we can without taking into account any commercial factors,” clarified Kirsten.

Explaining the commercial viability of such flights, Emirates’ Lister said their flights from Dubai to India carry other commercial cargo booked on those flights and the return flights carry export commodities destined for the UAE and other markets. “India is a very important export market for a number of sectors and the demand for cargo capacity from India is strong. Given the high level of interconnectedness between markets across the globe, we ensure that we provide a reliable and continuous connectivity not just for relief materials but for other key import and export items into and out of India such as pharma, perishables, raw materials for industries and manufacturing and so on,” he said.

“We plan these flights in such a way that they are optimized and integrated into our network so there is the least chance of such flights flying back empty. Our primary goal is to offer solutions for relief cargo to be delivered promptly at destinations without any delays,” rationalises Kirsten.

Maria explained how the Solidarity Plane has been functioning over the years with its most characteristic feature being its operational flexibility, which in large part is provided by its extensive cargo network and itinerary. “This produces a combined supply among passenger plane holds and freighters and gives us the option of combining free transport with commercial loads.  As of December 2020 until today, we have taken 40 million vaccines free of charge on domestic flights in Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, and we're available to support the region whenever we are needed,” she added. 

Maria explains this citing an example. “Last year, the San Andres Archipelago in Colombia was hit by the IOTA hurricane. Due to its magnitude, we modified our itinerary within 24 hours to make two freighters available for humanitarian aid heading to this area. At that time, the freighters returned empty. However, there are other circumstances in which the program runs on a domestic flight to transport a Peruvian condor that needs medical care or to move exotic plants in Brazil that need a treatment to another city in the country. In cases such as these the planes need not be empty.”

Furthermore, since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the Solidarity Plane has transported more than 1,400 health professionals to attend to the urgent needs of Covid-19, and has transferred more than 600 people with diverse medical needs, including illnesses or surgeries that require immediate attention.

LATAM is an aerial bridge that has helped mobilise the hope of life by transporting more than 1,500 organs and tissues in South America amidst the pandemic. In light of the border closings, the carrier has brought second chances at life to patients with blood cancer even carrying stem cells for the first time on LATAM Cargo. As of today, 12 stem cell shipments have been made. These include 10 for Chilean patients on the Frankfurt-Santiago route, one from Brazil to Argentina and one stem cell shipment from Santiago to Europe all with the aim of giving a second chance at life to these people.

Scenario planning

Many airlines have limited such humanitarian flights to a certain number of days or tonnes per flight. For instance, after sending 600 tonnes (6 charters) of vital aid to India, QR Cargo continued the free-of-charge transport for embassies sending aid to India throughout the month of May 2021, limited to 10 tonnes/station/week. At the same time, Emirates has not capped the number of flights on which the carrier will transport humanitarian assistance materials. “We will do our part to support India and other markets affected by the pandemic and other crises to recover,” said Lister. 

This could mean major savings for aid groups as airfreight costs go through the roof amid the pandemic. While there’s a long way to go before normalcy returns, the air cargo industry that has been on the frontlines, with its stakeholders transporting vaccines, oxygen and medicines free of charge, continues to monitor the situation on ground to battle the pandemic.

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