Why more and more products are transported by plane (and how freight rates will change in the future) - Start Up Gazzete
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Why more and more products are transported by plane (and how freight rates will change in the future)


Last summer, as the maritime supply crisis worsened, a cargo plane in Italy was quickly filled with thousands of lipsticks. They were headed to the United States on a tight deadline.

Mehir Sethi, CEO and founder of California-based beauty brand True+Luscious, says she relied on shipping for years. She had always been trustworthy.

But to get 15,000 lipsticks to her customers on time, her only option was to pay to ship them by air.

“To my great pain, we had to do it for two urgent shipments; they were products that were already committed to retailers,” he says.

The lipsticks flew in at a small loss to the business, but she says it was worth keeping the customers.

Mehir Sethi, CEO and founder of beauty brand True + Luscious.
Mehir Sethi had to lose money to make sure the orders were fulfilled.

Companies made thousands of decisions like this in recent months. And there are no signs that it will change yet .

“We’ve used a lot of air freight, which isn’t exciting, but is necessary with the challenges we all face,” David Bergman, chief financial officer of sportswear brand Under Armour, said in a November conference call about the business.

Eastman Chemical Company similarly reported using air freight to ship specialty plastics.

higher costs

A US Census Bureau service called USA Trade Online, which tracks cargo flows in and out of the country, notes that in the first 10 months of 2021, 78 9,000 tons of auto parts were shipped by air from Asia to that country , a staggering increase from the 3,000 tons shipped during the same period in 2020.

Shipping goods by air has always been expensive. But now it is more expensive than ever .

Air freight costs from Asia to North America “have reached levels I’ve never seen before, 15 per kilo, which is unbelievably high,” says Greg Knowler , senior Europe editor at IHS Markit’s Journal of Commerce .

Delays affecting shipping are partly to blame, but so is the huge drop in passenger flights since the start of the pandemic.

rise in demand

More than half of all air cargo in the world usually travels in the holds of passenger planes. But with much less space available, airlines have made an effort to convert airliners to freighters and bring back older, disused models .

AirBridgeCargo Airlines, a subsidiary of Russian air cargo specialist Volga-Dnepr, is boosting its fleet with an additional six planes, after what Alexey Zotov, chief commercial officer, says was a “busy season that we’ve never had before”.

Airport delays have “piled up like a snowball since early fall,” it adds.

Some airlines, such as Air Canada, also put cargo planes into service earlier than planned, even before they could finish painting them in some cases.

Manufacturers, including Airbus, have been inundated with requests to convert older airliners to carry more cargo , just to get extra capacity in the skies. The process includes removing passenger seats and installing larger doors.

Crawford Hamilton, Head of Marketing for Cargo Markets at Airbus.
Orders for Airbus airliners converted to cargo have sold out for the next two to three years, says Crawford Hamilton.

“We see a lot of people buying these conversions, they are sold out for the next two or three years,” says Crawford Hamilton, head of freighter marketing at Airbus.


“That’s something we weren’t in a position to say two years ago,” he adds.

Future surplus?

Although air freight transport only represents approximately 1% of the entire freight market in terms of volume, its value is 35% of the total .

Sometimes expensive products like consumer electronics and fashion items that have a short shelf life in the market are shipped by air. Additionally, during the pandemic, planes have carried countless loads of vaccines and personal protective equipment.

Airbus also launched a new air cargo service using its fleet of five BelugaST aircraft, also known as flying whales thanks to their huge fuselage.

The question is whether air cargo demand will remain strong, even if the pandemic recedes.

With many aircraft permanently converted to cargo and freight supply on the rise, Robert Mayer of Cranfield University wonders if there will be too much capacity on the market in five years’ time .

Airbus A350-F.
Airbus has just launched the A350F to meet anticipated demand from cargo carriers.

However, aircraft manufacturers seem confident. Airbus expects an increase in demand for dedicated cargo aircraft in the coming years, and has just launched the A350F aircraft in anticipation of this.

It can carry as much cargo, in volume terms, as a Boeing 747, but is 40% more fuel efficient. This is achieved in part through the use of lighter materials, composites and titanium in the body of the aircraft.

Boeing is also optimistic . It forecasts that the number of air freighters will grow globally by 60% between now and 2039. If that projection is confirmed, manufacturers will need to build 2,400 new freighters by then.

Tom Sanderson, Boeing’s director of product marketing, says it may introduce a freighter variant of its latest wide-body airliner, the 777X, but it will be “several years” before it enters service.

Sustainable development and environment

More cargo may be moved by air in the coming years, but that could lead to an unwanted increase in greenhouse gas emissions unless aviation becomes greener.

Both Boeing and Airbus are testing “sustainable aviation fuels,” including biofuels from renewable sources that can be used in existing aircraft instead of fossil fuel-based propellants.

Artist's illustration of the DHL Express electric plane.
DHL ordered 12 electric planes from Eviation.

Small electric planes are also likely to become more common. DHL Express ordered 12 all-electric planes from Eviation, for example.

Besides the prohibitive cost, one thing that deters Sethi from using air freight more often to transport her beauty products is the environmental impact.

“I would definitely resent the increase in our carbon footprint as a company if we had to rely on air travel,” he says.

Like many others, it is rethinking its reliance on global supply chains. Consequently, he decided to source some of his products from closer suppliers, to avoid future shipping problems.

“Some of the orders that we used to place with our Italian manufacturer will now go to our New Jersey manufacturer,” he says.



  • Chris Baranuk
  • Reporter specialized in Technology and Business
Author avatar
Joshua Smith

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