Air Freight and Covid19


Air Freight and Covid19

With the full resumption of passenger flights within Australia and overseas it’s a good time to look at how the Covid 19 pandemic has impacted air freight in Australia and globally.

According to a report by A. Sumner, C. Hoy, and E. Ortiz-Juarez, “Estimates of the Impact of COVID-19 on Global Poverty” (2020), “The Covid19 pandemic is estimated to have caused the largest global recession since the severe worldwide economic downturn in the 1930s (the Great Depression), with millions of people falling into extreme poverty.”

All over the world, the movement of aircraft and shipments slowed when the Covid19 pandemic first appeared in December 2019.  The global airline industry was hard hit due to closing borders and many countries going into unprecedented lockdowns. As a result, air passenger travel dropped by 90% in some cases and the supply of goods and services was affected.

Many airline companies had no alternative but to cease operations as people stopped moving around the globe and within their own countries. As a result, some major airports closed and became parking lots for multitudes of grounded planes.

Australia’s response to international airfreight concerns

The Australian Government recognised that Australia, as an island nation, could not afford to be cut off from international airfreight routes, so they implemented the International Freight Assistance Mechanism (IFAM) in April 2020. The IFAM aimed to successfully reconnect global airfreight routes to enable the transport of time-sensitive freight. IFAM operated on the premise that air freight could continue successfully with minimal personal interactions.

Before the pandemic, 80% of Australia’s airfreight was carried in the holds of passenger flights. Halting flights into and out of Australia could have affected around 35,000 direct and over 120,000 indirect jobs in agriculture, seafood transport, aviation, and logistics. With many of these jobs being in regional communities. (Source: Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, internal paper prepared by the Boston Consulting Group, 2020).

By acting quickly to keep the airfreight routes open, IFAM allowed those businesses affected by the pandemic to adapt their business models, adjust to a new and tougher trading environment, and preserve jobs, thereby restoring global supply chains and maintaining important trade relationships around the world.

The IFAM-funded flights officially finished on 30 June 2022. The IFAM website states, “Since April 2020, IFAM reconnected 9 Australian ports to 63 international destinations. It has helped move high-value perishable Australian products to existing international markets. The program has also enabled importing nationally important goods, aiding Australia’s pandemic response.”

International airlines keep trade open for Australia

There were several international airlines that maintained Australia’s overall air freight tonnage to about 80% of pre-pandemic levels (77,000 tonnes on average per month). Due to an arcane international aviation system, Australian airlines can only operate to and from individual destinations, making long-haul operations too complex and the reason why Australian-owned and operated international airlines ceased flying until November 2021, when the borders reopened.  Aside from a short-lived “travel bubble” between Australia and New Zealand in April 2021.

Cargo flights to/from Australia: Apr-2020 to Aug-2021

In other countries:

  • American Airlines continued to operate 140 all-cargo flights per week.
  • Lufthansa began to utilise Airbus A330s as all-cargo flights to transport medical supplies and PPE between China and Germany.
  • Korean Airlines flew over 10 000 cargo flights on passenger planes, even going so far as to modify and remove passenger seating from some planes to capitalise on the space required to transport PPE and vaccines.
  • Scandinavian Airlines, known as SAS, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates-based Etihad Airways expended their cargo operations using passenger planes in response to the steep drop in air travel demand.

Domestic air freight

Australia’s April 2020 domestic air freight volumes were nearly 30 per cent below its April 2019 volumes, with exports 40 per cent lower, due to the reduction in passenger flights throughout Australia.  The Australian Government provided aviation support programs through the Retaining Domestic Airline Capability program, which gave eligible airlines $750 per week for frontline employees that are otherwise unable to access COVID-19 disaster payments. Australian businesses reported longer delivery times and increased costs, with smaller businesses being affected the most according to The Reserve Bank of Australia, April 2021.

Advances in technology – Unit Load Devices

During this time, Unilode and Skycell, Swiss companies specialising in tracking technology for Unit Load Devices (ULD), made further inroads into utilising Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology capable of transmitting parameters associated with critical air cargo. ULDs are the special pallets and containers airfreight companies use to transport freight in aircraft safely. 

Before this, all ULDs were tracked using sometimes unreliable paperwork.   The inflight connectivity networks utilise the same blockchain technology used by cryptocurrency. They now connect freight networks from aviation containers, pallets, and in-flight food service equipment in more than 90 major airlines worldwide. 

Where to now?

Air freight and passenger travel have always operated as hybrid operations, with air freight being the more profitable of the two. However, the pandemic has given us pause to review how we travel and ship airfreight between countries. If anything, air freight transport to and from some countries has improved with new tracking and systems in place to ensure that cargo can continue moving even if humans cannot.   

Worldwide, air travel and the airline industry were one of the hardest hit during the early months of Covid19, with many airlines collapsing.   We still have a way to go before freight and passenger travel returns to pre-covid volumes and efficiencies, and all airlines are staffed to full capacity. 

Get in Touch

If you are an airfreight operator transporting infectious substances or dangerous goods by air you may be interested in our correspondence courses. We offer 24/7 access to the following CASA-certified courses:

  • Dangerous Goods Awareness and Acceptance of Non-Dangerous Goods Course (DGA Course)
  • Safe Transport of Infectious Substances by Air Course (Shippers Training Course)
  • Crew Resource Management (CRM) /Aviation Decision Making (ADM) Course

Get in touch today to enquire about our courses and arrange for a Zoom or TEAMS meeting with one of our experienced consultants. (08) 61807939 or

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