Cargo capacity has dropped dramatically as a result of the travel bans and flight restrictions in place across Europe and the globe, due to the fact that most airlines transport cargo in the bellies of their passenger flights. Under normal circumstances belly freight accounts for 50–60% of air cargo. Although it represents 2.6% in trade volumes, European air cargo accounts for nearly 30% of exports and 21% of imports in value, turning the industry into a crucial enabler of economic activity throughout the continent and far beyond.
Air cargo is used as the primary way to transport high-value items, such as pharmaceuticals, and perishable goods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables. During the COVID-19 crisis, air cargo has become even more essential to ensure the uninterrupted transport of medicines, health care supplies and fresh food throughout Europe. To ensure the continuity of trade flows, A4E and ERA welcome in particular the operational measures asking Member States to exempt asymptomatic transport personnel (including air crew, cargo personnel and airport personnel) from current travel restrictions and containment measures.
“We fully welcome these concrete measures and call on Member States to swiftly implement them to keep air cargo flying in Europe. At the same time we urge national authorities to ensure that key personnel, including customs and security staff at EU airports, are able to go to work and ensure a safe and secure operation”, said Thomas Reynaert, Managing Director, Airlines for Europe (A4E).
At the moment, European airlines are facing severe difficulties to maintain cargo operations. It is important to understand that cargo crews do not operate point-to-point and do not return home each night. Instead they need to rest and eat, but hotels and restaurants are now closed throughout Europe.
“The guidelines are welcome and now we call on Member States not only to adopt them, but to go the extra step needed to keep cargo airlines in the air”, added Andrew Kelly, ERA President. “Cargo airlines’ flight crews have been maintaining operations since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in China. Flights into coronavirus epicentres have never stopped as cargo airlines transported vital medical supplies, Personal Protection Equipment and other cargo essential to the economic supply line. The additional costs of network changes, re-routing flights, ferry and positioning flights and significant hotel costs, where hotels are available are a significant additional burden on cargo airlines, with many essential routes and services now unsustainable. It is a fallacy to say that cargo airlines are making a lot of money at a time when costs are rocketing. Similarly, Member States need to facilitate the travel of cargo crews, with proper ID, using crew immigration and security lanes and allowing them to carry food, drinks and sanitiser gels above the current 100ml limit”.
“We also applaud the European Competition Network, which recognised that the extraordinary situation caused by COVID-19 may require cooperation between companies in order to ensure the supply and fair distribution of scarce products to all consumers”, Reynaert added.
Finally, A4E and ERA support the European Commission in calling on third countries to “refrain from unnecessary restrictions on air cargo operations”. European airlines are facing increasing restrictions on air cargo operations in third countries and want an immediate alleviation of these measures. International cooperation is essential to keep international supply chains functioning, even as we are reaching the peak of the health crisis.
Cargo crews are facing huge difficulties that threaten the continuation of these crucial flights. The closure of hotels and restaurants, restrictions at immigration, positioning flights and lack of flexibility at airports for positioning crew are proving to be insurmountable problems.