Starting in February, Delta Air Lines will begin a cargo-only service between Detroit in Michigan and Brussels in Belgium. The airline will fly the route twice a week using its Airbus A330s, with a plan to upgrade to an A350-900 in March. This comes as IATA predicts cargo will be back to 2019 levels by March this year.
Delta’s new Detroit cargo route
As the pandemic drove down the worldwide capacity for freight, numerous airlines have turned to cargo to help weather the crisis. With fewer passenger planes in the air, belly-hold capacity has plummeted, sending the price for cargo shipments soaring.
Over the year, we’ve seen airlines operating cargo-only flights for the first time, often using passenger planes to do so. Some even took seats out to provide for more space, creating the world’s first ‘preighter’ aircraft. However, Delta has been in the cargo game for many years, having launched dedicated cargo operations in 1946. Nevertheless, it has not owned dedicated cargo aircraft for several decades.
During 2020, Delta bolstered its cargo offerings, using its passenger planes to ferry shipments around the world. It has been, on average, flying 30 dedicated cargo flights a week. Recent additions have included flights between New York (JFK) and Madrid (MAD) with its 767s, as well as Atlanta (ATL) to Mumbai (BOM) using its A330s with a stop in Frankfurt on the route.
Now, another destination has been added to the network, with a direct flight to Brussels from Chicago set to launch next month. Delta will fly its A330 passenger aircraft on the route twice a week but plans to upgrade to use its A350-900 from March onwards.
While these aircraft will be likely focused on shipping vaccines and PPE, Delta says they will also carry pharmaceuticals, US mail, home office supplies, and food. The A350 has space in its lower cargo hold for up to 42 tons of freight.
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IATA predicts cargo volumes returning to 2019 levels by March
The news of Delta adding more cargo capacity to its network comes on the same day as IATA released its Cargo Market Analysis for November 2020. While the headline recovery stalled year on year, with capacity down 6.6% compared to 6.2% in October, the association notes that this was down to a particularly strong spike in capacity during November 2019.
In seasonally adjusted terms, IATA says that cargo tonne-kilometers (CTK) actually grew by 1.6% month on month. This makes for another month of growth since the lowest point for capacity back in April last year. With this in mind, IATA predicts that cargo volumes will return to 2019 levels, or thereabouts, by March 2021.
Cargo load factors remain at an all-time high, with high yields for those operators able to provide capacity. For commercial airlines, cargo has proven to be a lucrative cushion against the downturn in passenger traffic, and Delta is keen to secure further share of this market as we head into the second half of the winter season.