During the past spring, freighter operators caught a glimpse of paradise in Hong Kong. In March the number of all-cargo flights going through Hong Kong International Airport jumped 16.8 percent, well ahead of the airport's tonnage growth curve, which showed an increase of 11.8 percent. The following months looked even more auspicious. While HKG's overall cargo volume advanced a stately 3.3 percent in May, freighters boosted their share of the total by a whopping 37 percent.
Of course, this seismic shift was the direct outflow of the SARS outbreak, which brutally decimated air travel in the Asia-Pacific region and forced passenger airlines to curb their flying drastically, with cutbacks in the 40-to-60 percent range.
Hong Kong saw a 52 percent reduction in passenger flights in May. But the airport remained a premiere gateway for cargo traffic and freighter operators were standing ready to give desperate forwarders and shippers the lift they needed.
SARS presented special circumstances, of course, but some industry observers argue that there is fundamental shift from bellies to freighters was more than a blip caused by the epidemic. "This is not a temporary phenomenon linked to SARS," said Brian Clancy, principal of cargo consultancy MergeGlobal.
In fact, several airline executives working the trans-Pacific trade say the trend has been evident for several years, albeit not as dramatically as it was seen this spring. Freight makes up a larger proportion of overall revenue for Asia-Pacific carriers that it does in general for North American and European airlines and long-term forecasts support the view of a structural shift to main deck …