Lock down led to focus on agri and cargo in Indian aviation

India has been in lock down since March 2020. This meant that all scheduled commercial operations were suspended which took a hit on cargo as well. Airlines devised ways to continue cargo operations with Spicejet being on the forefront – converting three Q400 aircraft to freighters by removing seats. Both Spicejet and IndiGo started operating cargo only flights with even cargo on seat options.

The focus on cargo has led to some interesting developments. In the first quarter of FY 2020-21, total agriculture exports are estimated to be 20,368 MT. This was done despite most of the period being in lock down. Domestically, agriculture cargo uplift at origin airport has been estimated at 7,519 MT.

While the focus on cargo increased, a few first’s were recorded. “Langra, Chausa and Banarasi” varieties of Mangoes were exported to London for the first time, in mid-June. This also led to promotion of India as a transshipment hub with operations between China (supplier) and Chad(Consignee) via Chennai, operated by Indian freighter aircraft. The Land – Air pilot project on transshipment of cargo also picked up steam with the cargo transfer at Petrapole (from Bangladesh) reaching Kolkata Airport for export. The Land – Air transshipment were also initiated involving agriculture produce on the route Varanasi – Lucknow – Delhi – Dubai and Muzzafarpur – Patna – Abu Dhabi (via Bengaluru / Delhi / Chennai / Mumbai / Kolkata)

There has been focus on development of new markets for new Indian agri-produce in the East and Far-East as well as Middle-East and Central Europe, in addition to the usual markets in Western Europe and the USA. Surplus producer states and demand clusters were roped in to indicate their daily supply and demand position. Their origin – destination pairs were matched, and the needs of the value chain in terms of grading, sorting ,packaging requirements as per rules and plant and animal quarantine certification required by export destination were tied up through hands-on facilitation.

While lifeline UDAN focused on medicine supplies on domestic and international routes, cargo had picked up steam in April. Spicejet operated 700+ cargo flights between 25th March and 30th April carrying 5,099 tons of cargo. Blue Dart operated 245 cargo flights carrying 4,179 tons of cargo during the same time. IndiGo operated 75 cargo flights between 3rd and 30th April and carried 347 tons of cargo. While Blue Dart is a cargo only carrier, Spicejet has a dedicated freighter wing. IndiGo operated cargo on seat in addition to belly, in absence of dedicated freighter aircraft. Vistara also chipped in with 17 cargo flights in April and carried 123 tons of cargo.

While it is unclear on when the capacity will be back and the industry recovery is largely dependent on COVID19, cargo is the new found love for carriers in India. An independent look at it shows that while love is new found, it shows how ignored this attractive option has been for all these years!

It took a lock down for the entire ecosystem to act together to look for transshipment opportunities, researching on origin – destination pairs for exports and having trade corridors opened up so as the only area which was functioning in lock down – “Cargo” can move seamlessly!

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