United Airlines goes on cargo tear

Hydraulic lift platform lifts cargo pallets to door of United Airlines jet. United Airlines has figured out how to make money off of cargo during the pandemic.

(Correction: United’s cargo-ton-miles went down, not up)

Airlines have touted how much dedicated cargo flying they’re doing with transformed passenger planes, but United Airlines is the only major U.S. carrier where cargo is boosting the bottom line during the COVID pandemic.

United’s second-quarter earnings last week included an eye-popping 36.3% increase in cargo revenue to $402 million. Cargo-ton-miles fell 40.3% to 496 million, indicating premium prices played a big part in the revenue gain. Even more impressive is the fact that cargo revenue represented 27.3% of the company’s total operating revenue compared to 2.6% in the same period last year. Half-year results showed cargo revenue grew 14.6% to $666 million.

The Chicago-based company quickly launched cargo-only services, involved the cargo team in operations planning, and leveraged its hub locations and strong relations with freight forwarders to fill the flights, according to company officials and industry specialists.

At Delta Air Lines, cargo revenue during the quarter plunged 42% to $108 million and fell 31% in the first six months of the year. American Airlines recorded a 41% quarterly drop in cargo revenue to $130 million and a 73% reduction in cargo-ton-miles (176 million), with first-half revenue down 37%. Delta didn’t report any figures for transported volume. 

Southwest Airlines, the third-largest domestic carrier by market share, doesn’t have much of an international network and doesn’t fly widebody jets that attract the most cargo volume, so comparisons are somewhat unfair. Still, the Dallas-based company said second-quarter cargo revenue fell 13.6% to $38 million.

During follow-up calls with analysts, United executives were eager to brag about the cargo division’s performance. At Delta, American and Southwest, cargo never came up. 

“Our commercial team has done a better job, I think, than any airline in the entire world recognizing what the pandemic has meant for demand and taking advantage of opportunities where they present themselves,” CEO Scott Kirby boasted. “Our cargo team, led by Jan Krems, [generated a] 36% increase in cargo. I mean, who would have ever thought we could do something like that?”

Experts and logistics partners say United Airlines made cargo a focal point in March when the novel coronavirus forced countries to close borders and airlines to suspend most passenger operations. The airline aggressively turned idle planes and their lower-deck holds into mini-freighters, offering dedicated charter flights and cargo-only scheduled routes when freight intermediaries were desperate to replace the lost passenger capacity. After receiving approval from U.S. aviation authorities, United also operated “ghost” flights with mail and lightweight freight in the seats and storage areas of the cabin normally occupied by travelers and their carry-on bags.

United officials say they have flown more than 4,000 passenger freighters and 130 million pounds of cargo, since March 19. Delta and American Airlines have operated 1,100 and 1,224 “preighters” so far, respectively, according to spokespersons at both companies.

Southwest retreated from offering cargo-only charters because aircraft were needed to meet rising demand from the passenger side of the business and fewer forwarders were interested in booking entire aircraft for large domestic shipments, spokesman Dan Landson said. 

Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella said United’s cargo throughput also got a boost because the airline maintained passenger service throughout the crisis to Australia, Japan, Brazil and multiple points in Europe, despite restrictive border policies. 

Cargo man in charge

Observers say United benefits from having someone whose career is built on cargo running the Cargo division. Krems has been United Cargo’s president since 2014 and held a series of management positions at Air France/KLM Cargo for 15 years, cultivating relations with logistics providers who book most of the freight with airlines.

“Krems was able to convince them to fly the planes,” said an industry source who asked not to be named because of close business ties with all the major airlines.

By contrast, Rick Elieson headed cargo at American Airlines for three years before moving on this month to lead the airline’s loyalty program. Previously, he was in charge of marketing, customer service, web development and the vacation package business. American promoted Jessica Tyler to president of cargo after two years as Elieson’s deputy. Prior to that she worked in business process re-engineering for American and a management consulting firm.

At Delta, Shawn Cole has been vice president of cargo for three years. In his previous nine years at Delta, and before that at Coca-Cola, he focused on finance, strategic planning and budgeting.

While other airlines treat cargo as a steppingstone for executives on the leadership track, “Jan will still be there,” the industry insider said. 

Krems has generated loyalty from top freight forwarders through handshake agreements in which United essentially agrees not to charge the highest possible rate during a seller’s market, as currently exists, in exchange for forwarders not chasing the lowest price when there is surplus capacity and times are leaner for airlines, said the well-connected air cargo representative.

Cargo needs to have a seat at the boardroom table in order to truly optimize its revenue streams. We’re seeing which airlines took that to heart as the second quarter results are coming in,” Neel Jones Shah, the global head of air carrier partnerships at forwarder Flexport, told FreightWaves. “United really reacted very quickly to the COVID-19 crisis and was one of the first airlines in the world to institute passenger freighters. They very quickly built a global cargo-only flight network and had great support from the freight forwarding community.”

United recently said on its company blog, for example, that it has partnered with DSV/Panalpina, a global logistics powerhouse based in Europe, to transport frozen blood plasma and other pharmaceutical materials during the COVID crisis. Every week, DSV delivers 20 temperature-controlled shipping containers holding more than 1,750 pounds of plasma for carriage on a Boeing 787-9 temporary freighter. 

It also partnered with Los Angeles-based Commodity Forwarders Inc. to transport nearly 190,000 pounds of fresh produce to food banks in Guam for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program. The new program was created to provide support to consumers impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

CFI repacked the fruit in 10-pound cases at its facility near Los Angeles International Airport and delivered it to United for delivery to Guam on a Boeing 777 using a newly opened cargo route. 

Fortress Chicago

United also has a built-in advantage with its hub at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, which is centrally located and ringed by warehouses of major forwarders that have extensive road feeder networks across the country. United also has the most international flights originating from Newark, N.J., Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Washington Dulles connecting to many European destinations. Houston is a key gateway to Latin America.

“Cargo tends to go to and from our hubs. We have a well-established network with our people and our distributors, and that just was really humming,” United’s Nocella said. “Our cargo revenue in the second quarter and the first month was actually kind of flattish. So you can just imagine what May and June looked like. They were just really off the charts.”

Delta’s network is built around smaller hub cities such as Minneapolis and Detroit, although it also has conducted dedicated cargo operations out of Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York. 

Nocella predicted cargo will perform well during the third quarter too.

“As long as the global fleet of widebodies is not flying like it normally is industrywide, we think cargo is going to be pretty strong in terms of the yield production which gives us the ability to do cargo-only charters,” he said. “Whether it’s at the levels of Q2, I think it’s a little bit early to tell, but it definitely will outperform year-over-year based on what we’re seeing here in July already.”

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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