In 1948 and 1949, air cargo operators came to the rescue of a blockaded Berlin. The airlift provided vital cargo like medical supplies and food for the isolated citizens of West Berlin. At its peak, the Berlin airlift landed a freighter every 30 seconds.

The air cargo sector is once again answering the call of a world in disruption. With an unprecedented need for vast amounts of vital medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) to help battle the COVID-19 pandemic around the world, air cargo is moving at the speed of flight.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first began, air cargo volume had stalled. About half of all air freight in the world is carried in the belly holds of passenger aircraft. As airlines cut flights in response to a dramatic decline in passenger demand — with flight frequencies down nearly 75% — air cargo capacity dropped precipitously.

Since then, unused passenger aircraft have become “virtual freighters,” replacing some of the lost airline revenue from fewer passengers with cargo income. These flights started with only belly cargo and no passengers. On narrow-body planes, cargo simply replaces passenger luggage, while wide-body planes load lower deck containers with freight.

The “virtual freighter” concept has continued to evolve with innovative adaptations:

  • Airlines are more adept at non-structural conversions — seats that carried passengers and overhead bins can easily carry packages. Seats can be removed to reduce weight and increase capacity. Concepts are in development for main cabins that mix passengers in seats with secured cargo in the same cabin. At least 22 carriers have now removed seats on at least 66 passenger aircraft to create additional cargo space. The most popular aircraft for seat removal appear to be the 737-800, A330-300, 767-300 and 777-300.
  • Flights run on regular schedules instead of as custom charters.
  • As of May 14, Cargo Facts recorded more than 1,300 passenger aircraft have been operated in cargo-only service, regardless of frequency.
  • Airline safety governing bodies worldwide have been quick to set guidelines and review and approve these innovations, making the procedures standard for future emergencies.

Other innovations are taking hold in the air cargo industry now to help improve demand response during future disruptions. Multistory warehouses with multilevel docks are being designed to accommodate tight urban sites; new K-9 units and electronic systems reduce cargo inspection times and result in reduced space in the warehouse; “miniature” versions of automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) allow for more efficient cargo handling in smaller operations; and new Bluetooth, optical scanning and RFID tracking of air cargo containers worldwide optimize utilization and reduce lost units.

Additionally, strategies are being created to relieve congestion around the airport. One company implemented CargoSprint’s SprintPass communication and payment platform software at the East Cargo Area at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to ease traffic congestion around Century Boulevard and improve response to flight closeout times.

Just as in 1948, the air cargo industry has answered the call for emergency transport of vital supplies and equipment. When the next disruption occurs, cargo facilities will be prepared by implementing today's innovations to accommodate the quick response modifications needed for the future.  


The aviation industry is experiencing mass disruption. Past events have led to optimistic changes in how we operate and respond, and more adjustments will be made along the way.

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Pat Brown is a business development manager at Burns & McDonnell. He has dedicated his career to helping clients with their airport support facilities including those for heavy maintenance, corporate flights and FBO services.