Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Christmas. ‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’, as the song goes. It certainly is for cargo companies. The last couple of months of any calendar year are classed as peak season for logistics and air freight companies. 

Latest figures from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) show global demand for air freight, measured in cargo ton-kilometers, was up 9.1% in September 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic levels of September 2019. 

Demand for air freight, usually an expensive mode of transporting goods, has been boosted by supply chain disruption caused by the pandemic as well as consumers increasingly turning to online shopping during COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. With other forms of transport suffering long delays, some businesses are turning to air freight to ensure faster receipt of goods. 

The demand for freight was laid clear at the 2021 Dubai Airshow, with Boeing and Airbus seeking customers for new freighter aircraft.  

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Adding to these factors in 2021 are the big annual consumer events in November, such as Singles’ Day in China and Black Friday, originally a US tradition, but which has spread to Europe too, plus Christmas shopping. IATA predicts that these events will keep up the pressure on already stretched supply chains and reckons air cargo will play a crucial role in meeting the demand, leading to a strong end of the year for air freight providers.

So, just how do the big logistics companies like FedEx and UPS prepare for this busy time of the year? AeroTime investigates. 

Unprecedented demand

FedEx expects the 2021 peak season could be even busier than the “unprecedented 2020 holiday season”

The logistics giant estimates that global online spending is likely to increase by 11% year-on-year to $910 billion during the upcoming holiday season 

FedEx Express, the world’s largest express transportation company, is expanding weekly capacity on its intra-Europe network by adding three new flights and upgrading capacity on four flights. The company says this will enable it to carry almost 210,000 kilograms on certain routes within Europe. 

The three new flights are to Manchester, Stockholm and Kiev. When it comes to upgauging aircraft, FedEx said that on routes from Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Timisoara via Prague, and to Warsaw via Katowice, it is replacing smaller ATR aircraft with a Boeing 737. On a route to Shannon, an ATR72-202 is set to be replaced by an ATR72-600.  

FedEx is also adding up to 20% additional capacity on transatlantic routes for the busiest weeks of the holiday season in November and December.  

From Asia-Pacific, it has added six new intercontinental flights on high demand lanes to the United States and Europe ahead of the year-end holiday peak. It has also added wide-body 767 freighters, making the FedEx fleet in Asia 100% wide-body, as part of capacity upgrades. 

“Together with our peak capacity expansion to the US and our new EU-APAC flight, we are ready to support our customers during peak and beyond, whether they do business within Europe, or intercontinentally to the East or to the West”, Karen Reddington, President of FedEx Express Europe, said in a statement. 

FedEx Corp and its operating companies also plan to hire 90,000 new team members in the United States to handle the peak surge.

From ‘Brown Friday’ to ‘Black Friday’

A spokesperson for UPS said the group has a “laser focus” on reliability during peak season and would be boosting its network during the peak shipping season.  

“Every day, UPS moves millions of express packages by air in the U.S. and around the world. Black Friday and the rest of the peak holiday shipping season is no different. To accommodate the additional package volume, UPS flexes up its global network, leasing additional aircraft and hiring additional staff to sort packages,” the spokesperson told AeroTime. 

Worldport, the group’s main global air hub in Louisville, Kentucky, usually processes about 2.2 million packages per day. That number will double during the busiest points of the year-end peak season, UPS explained. 

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Like FedEx, UPS is also taking on additional staff for the peak period. It held a three-day hiring event at various locations and online from November 4-6, 2021. The hiring roadshow takes place every year and the company dubs it the “UPS Brown Friday”.

In 2021, UPS was planning to take on at least 60,000 new hires to support the annual shipping rush. The jobs primarily comprise package handlers, drivers, and driver-helpers. UPS also notes that around one-third of those hired for seasonal roles were later hired in a permanent role when the holidays were over. 

The ongoing uncertainty caused by the pandemic might be boosting air freight demand, but companies still need to be flexible and make contingency plans. Tough restrictions in Hong Kong, a major cargo hub, have pushed FedEx and Cathay Pacific to reconsider their crewing arrangements there. 

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FedEx is closing its Hong Kong crew base due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, while Cathay is asking pilots to live abroad