Transport industry

Over the sea or through the air?

The coronavirus pandemic is posing new challenges for the transport industry as well. But will it result in permanent realignments or will everything revert to normal at some point? Sea and air freight through the looking glass.

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Some 90 percent of the world’s traded goods are transported by sea, and only about two percent by air. With the advent of the novel coronavirus, both modes of transport suffered slowdowns. March saw several million empty containers gridlocked in Chinese ports alone, while some vessels carrying full containers found themselves stranded and unable to sail. The air freight industry, which had previously transported between 50 and 60 percent of its cargo on passenger flights, endured turbulent times when the airlines’ schedules collapsed. Global trade has shrunk as well: according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), demand for air freight plummeted by 15 percent worldwide and 20 percent in Europe during the first half of 2020.

“The pandemic proved a major watershed for air freight,” confirms Christopher Stoller, Professor of Logistics Management at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University and President of the German Air Cargo Club. “Overall, however, traditional air freight has experienced an upgrade: among other things, this is demonstrated by the fact that lots of passenger aircraft have recently been converted into cargo planes.” Urgent needs for protective gear and other medical supplies reaffirmed the industry’s systemic relevance. Stoller is not, however, expecting a sustained shift in the balance between sea and air freight. “There are plenty of players handling and transporting goods along the supply chain. In my view, consolidations are more likely over the next few months.” For example, companies that mainly service customers from the automotive industry are currently facing major challenges. On the other hand, those with portfolios that include Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the pandemic are prospering.

Harald Kostial, Head of System Management Air & Sea at Gebrüder Weiss, takes a similar view. “After capacity on passenger planes subsided, air freight rates rose five-fold at times,” he says. While the shipping industry has made adjustments to its fleets and kept its prices relatively stable from the outset, charges for air freight are now slowly adjusting downwards. “In the first half of the year in particular, we were forced to react rapidly to the fluctuating prices and varying capacities on ships and aircraft.” In the long term, Kostial too is not anticipating major shifts in the loads handled by the two modes.

The majority of shipping companies have now sent their fleets back to sea. “The big question facing them is how world trade will evolve overall in the aftermath of the crisis,” says shipping expert Max Johns, a professor at the Hamburg School of Business Administration. In the current year, for example, container trade is expected to fall by some ten percent. “Additionally, it will be interesting to watch the resurgent debate playing out on the rights and wrongs of deglobalization.” He believes that the widespread protectionist attitudes will still underpin trade relations in the future. “The biggest reorganization I envisage is in a diversification of sources to production sites in different countries,” Johns explains. It remains to be seen how exactly the different modes of transport share out the distribution of goods, he believes. “It all hinges on where the production facilities are – that will define the tomorrow’s transport chains.”

Anne-Katrin Wehrmann is a freelance journalist who lives in Bremen. Alongside logistics, her focuses include maritime subjects, renewable energies, science and research.

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