Air freight demand soars to link virus-severed supply chains

TOKYO — Demand for air freight charter services is on the rise in East Asia as manufacturers scramble to secure vital supplies amid the coronavirus pandemic, even at sharply higher costs. The growing need to ship semiconductor components, auto parts and other goods by air has prompted airlines to make more planes available for freight, offsetting some of the plunge in passenger travel. ANA Cargo, a part of Japan’s ANA Holdings, had made plans for 68 chartered freight flights as of Friday.

That compares to zero flights in March 2019. Freight rates per kilo have risen 50% to 100%, an ANA Cargo representative said. Cargo holds on passenger planes typically carry some freight in addition to luggage.

But travel between Japan and destinations in South Korea and China has fallen so sharply that more companies are choosing to ship by charter plane, according to ANA Cargo. Until the coronavirus crisis, the company would fly charter flights once a month or less, typically for urgent needs like auto recalls. Nippon Cargo Airlines, a unit of ANA rival Japan Airlines, said it flew around 20% more freight in January and February than year-earlier levels.

Logistics group Nippon Express has arranged for more than 25 chartered freight flights in March, with plans to increase capacity further. The rise in air freight demand also mirrors the drop in container shipping, a lower-cost method of transportation. According to the Antwerp Port Authority in Belgium, an international shipping hub, container ships leaving China have fallen 20%.

Global container traffic is forecast to fall 1% in 2020, the port operator said. Sending freight by air typically costs about 10 times or so as much ocean shipping. That makes it prohibitively expensive for some goods.

Yet air freight companies said they have received inquiries about shipping even for parts for which it does not make economic sense, like engine camshafts.

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