It’s not just people, freight is also a burden for the airline industry this season.
“We are a passenger airline, but not many people realize that almost every flight you go on, there’s actually cargo below as well,” Chris Busch, the managing director of the Americas region for United Airlines Cargo, said. “This is a normal peak season for air, but it’s definitely, I think, the largest one any of us have seen in a very long time.”
Ships are backed up at seaports across the U.S., waiting to unload cargo from overseas.
“The demand is strong from all places into the U.S.,” Busch said.
As a result, air cargo is seeing more demand, especially from overseas markets. But the number of international flights isn’t back to pre-pandemic levels.
“Our transatlantic network, I think, right now, is roughly 75 percent of what it was pre-pandemic, but our transpacific network is only around 25 to 30 percent of what we were pre-pandemic,” Busch said.
And planes can only carry so much.
“The amount of freight you can carry on an airplane is a lot less than what you can carry on an ocean vessel,” he said.
“Typically we would use air cargo for very expensive, very time-sensitive products,” Donald Maier, the Dean of Maritime Transportation, Logistics, and Management at the California State University Maritime Academy, said. “There are so many different factors right now that have impacted our supply chains from inventory levels to significant consumer demand, COVID closures of the ports, our ports trying to catch up with it.”
The bottlenecks go from one area to the next. It’s something Maier said consumers should be wary of.
“As a consumer, plan on having higher prices. Unfortunately, and I can’t say that’s all because of the delays in the supply chain, there’s just a significant amount of demand. And we still have a pandemic we’re all living through so because of the uncertainty there is that challenge we still have to manage,” he said.
“Definitely a rise in prices, there's no question about it,” Joel Sutherland, a professor of practice in supply chain management at the University of San Diego, said.
He has more than 30 years of experience in logistics.
“If we’re going to meet the demand of consumers, then we have to use air freight. More importantly, if they don't use air freight and pay the premium then they risk losing business to their competitors that are doing this,” he explained.
Many airlines, like United Airlines, are trying to meet this demand by offering cargo-only flights. While it’s more expensive, Busch said it helps support the supply chain.
“They are still passenger aircraft, but we call them our freight-only flights,” he said.
United has moved more than 1.6 billion pounds of cargo since the beginning of the pandemic. The airline says 730 million pounds were moved on cargo-only flights. About 14,000 cargo-only flights have been flown by the company since the pandemic began.
“We’re doing all we can to support, but I don't know if it's going to be the solution for everyone," Busch said.
For now, consumers can still expect longer shipping times, higher prices, and possible delays.
“Be prepared for this to continue for at least another year, rough guess estimate,” Maier said.