CAG eyes air cargo amid plunge in passenger flights

Surge in freighter flights helps make up for loss of belly-hold capacity in passenger planes

Cargo planes are now taking to the skies and landing at Changi Airport more often to make up for the shortfall caused by the plunge in passenger flights.

Changi Airport Group (CAG) said yesterday that the number of cargo flights has more than doubled, to almost 780 weekly, from the start of this year.

"Passenger flights have been reduced due to travel restrictions during this period and (this) resulted in a loss of belly-hold cargo capacity, disrupting supply chains worldwide," said CAG. "To maintain the lifeline of vital supplies around the world, freighter carriers are now operating round the clock to fulfil global demand."

Belly-hold cargo refers to the cargo carried by a passenger plane in its lower deck. Most passenger planes worldwide have been grounded, after extensive travel restrictions and a plunge in demand owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Changi Airport reported a drop of 70.7 per cent in passenger numbers last month, compared with the same period last year. Movement of air cargo has fallen at a much slower rate - 453,000 tonnes of cargo passed through the airport in the first quarter of this year, representing an 8 per cent drop from the same period last year.

CAG said cargo planes now fulfil almost 90 per cent of cargo traffic at the airport, up from about 35 per cent.

It said the air freight industry plays a critical role in facilitating the supply chain of essential goods during the pandemic. These goods include food and medical supplies, such as test kits. For example, 20,000kg of chilled meat was flown over via an Air New Zealand flight from New Zealand to Changi Airport yesterday morning.

Mr Lim Ching Kiat, CAG's managing director of air hub development, said: "During this challenging period, more than ever, the air freight industry plays a critical supporting role in enabling supply chains for these essentials.

"Given its speed, air freight cannot be substituted by any modes of transportation in terms of agility and urgency, especially for intra-Asia and inter-continental routes."

Mr Lim said CAG is working with airlines to further increase cargo plane flight frequencies and to introduce more passenger flights that carry only cargo.

Currently, about 20 carriers, including Singapore Airlines, have launched cargo-only passenger flights to about 30 destinations from Singapore. There are a total of 30 freighter airlines at the airport.

Two cargo airlines, American carrier Kalitta Air and Chinese carrier Sichuan Airlines, have started flights from Changi this month.

CAG also said that its ground handling agents, dnata and Sats, have been clocking longer hours to manage the extra flights.

In response to queries, dnata's regional chief executive officer for Asia-Pacific Dirk Goovaerts said about 30 staff members have been temporarily redeployed from other departments, like customer service, to cargo operations.

"In some cases it has indeed helped to save jobs and in some cases it has supported additional cross-skilling of staff," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2020, with the headline 'CAG eyes air cargo amid plunge in passenger flights'. Subscribe