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Air Freight - The Evolution

June 8, 2018



air . freight / ‘erfrāt / - the transportation of goods by aircraft.


The world’s first “cargo only” flight took place on November 7, 1910 from Dayton to Columbus, Ohio. The Wright Model B aircraft was carrying 200 pounds of silk for the grand opening of a store. The flight was officially documented at taking 57 minutes to travel 65 miles, a world record for speed at the time. 


*Some reports note this flight time at 61 minutes.


The flight was also the first recorded multimodal transport since the commodity was carried via car from the airfield to the consignee in Columbus. In the early 1920’s air cargo began to take off as entrepreneurs quickly realized that one-piece valuables could be sent by air much faster than railroads or shipping companies of that era.


Modern air freight neglected to grow as rapidly as what the industry had anticipated. For years air import and export made up a very small portion of air traffic despite the fact that there were airlines specializing in cargo only flights. This delay in forecasted growth saw promise once the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 and the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 lifted limitations on the air freight industry as a whole. Prior to these amendments, there were strict guidelines that limited the amount of cargo an air freight could transport. There were also regulations on the relative propinquity of airports to destination drops.


The rise of the internet in the early 1990’s could be held primarily responsible for the sudden growth and expansion of air freight as a main player in the supply chain industry. In 1992, FedEx sent software to its customers that enabled them to track their shipments from their desk top computers – a game changer in the shipping industry. The internet essentially gave validity to air freight by making it more accessible and fundamentally more reliable. Airlines and freight forwarders now have the ability to offer their customers real-time tracking status and booking options, and in a technologically advanced world with a lessening attention span, “real-time” updates are essential. The industry is currently implementing additional digital actions such as the electronic airway bill.


Single-factor efficiency assessments indicate that the US Air Freight industry has significantly improved in areas of labor and capital but fell short in fuel productivity developments. FedEx and UPS have seen the smallest improvements over the past two decades, whereas all other cargo and combination carriers have advanced exponentially since 1998. Cargo carriers, or cargo only carriers, operate on a cargo only service, as the name implies. Combination carriers are airlines that offer passenger and cargo services. 


Passenger airlines began finding it lucrative to carry “belly cargo”, or cargo stored under the main deck of an airplane. Worth noting, cargo can only be placed on passenger flights if the shipper is on the Known Shipper Management System list constructed by Homeland Security – even still, 50% of all air freight is sent this way.


With the predictable rise and widespread acceptance of technology, we may eventually be operating in a supply chain world of electronic documents, automated procedures, and drone piloted air freights. As a matter of fact, Natilus, a company based in San Jose, California is working on the launch of its first drone prototype to be used for air cargo.  The future may already be here.


For more information regarding air freight or global logistics, click here.

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