For aviation, a lot is riding on e-commerce right now—perhaps too much for its own long-term good.
In the midst of the worst crisis for the industry ever, air freight has been a lifeline. The money yielded by each pound of cargo was 75% higher in January 2021 than a year earlier, the latest figures from data provider WorldACM show. Since few people are traveling, legacy airlines are planning their networks based on where they can fly goods, and have exploited regulatory exemptions allowing freight to fill passenger seats.
Express shipping, which is often reliant on sending goods by air, has expanded rapidly during the pandemic as households turn to home deliveries. Purchases of manufactured products generally also have held up better than in previous downturns.
Money is chasing the higher freight rates. On Wednesday, Chilean carrier LATAM Airlines , which recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the U.S., announced a big expansion of cargo operations. E-commerce giant Amazon is growing its fleet faster than planned before Covid-19, with a new focus on buying aircraft rather than leasing them. French container-shipping firm CMA CGM recently purchased four Airbus A330 jets to create an air-freight division. Shares in specialist cargo operators Atlas Air and Air Transport Services Group are up 100% and 29% since the start of the pandemic, respectively.
If the traditional economics of the freight business reassert themselves, though, investors could easily get burned.