Earlier this week, Russia-based AirBridgeCargo (ABC) canceled scheduled freighter flights into China and Hong Kong as the country’s air export volumes remain low due to disruptions related to the new coronavirus.
Until flights resume, the carrier has been operating a limited number of charter flights from Europe to China, with a stop in Krasnoyarsk, Russia (KJA). Flights originating in Europe or North America stop at KJA, where a crew change takes place and a double crew boards.
“The 4.5-hour flight from Krasnoyarsk enables us to fly there and back without any crew rest,” said Andrey Andreev, AirBridgeCargo’s vice president for Europe, on the sidelines of Cargo Facts EMEA in Frankfurt this week.
Other carriers told Cargo Facts they were doubling up on crews and adding technical stops in Russia for a limited number of flights. ABC’s base in Krasnoyarsk is a distinct advantage most other European carriers cannot access.
ABC plans at least twelve such flights during the next two weeks, representing a mere fraction of the more than 43 weekly flights that have been canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Although the freighter inevitably flies roundtrip, cargo is only moving into China at this point due to a lack or complete absence of cargo on the return ex-China.
While the days immediately following Lunar Near Year are typically slow for air cargo as industrial production gradually ramps up, coronavirus concerns have compounded the issue. This year’s seven-day Lunar New Year ended Jan. 25, but was extended across the country until Feb. 2. At least fourteen provinces have further extended the holiday by one to two weeks, including Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Tianjin to Feb. 9. Zhejiang and Hubei, the province where the outbreak was first discovered, will remain on holiday until Feb. 17, according to a global trade alert from Noatum Logistics.
Freighter flights from Hong Kong to China are “largely unaffected,” Hactl’s executive director Vivien Lau told Air Cargo World. However, since much of Hong Kong’s exports originate in China, flight cancellations are on the rise as the nearby provinces in mainland China remain on holiday.
Factory workers aren’t the only employees tempering the speed at which they are returning to work. Ground handlers to unload even the charter flights have been in short supply, according to Andreev.
When the coronavirus is eventually contained and flights resume, many in the industry expect a modest to heavy airfreight peak. The height of that peak will ultimately depend on the duration and severity of production interruptions in China and the extent to which inventories of China-made goods fall in the coming days and weeks. As production in China normalizes, carriers also worry that ground handlers at airports in Europe and the United States could become overwhelmed from what could be phenomenal demand.
Already, many factories in China, even those outside the virus’ epicenter in Wuhan, have been idled for more than a week. Even in Europe, “the freight is piling up and will need to be moved as fast as possible to Asia once the situation is over,” said Andreev.