The History of Air Freight and Where it’s Headed Today

Over a century ago, early aviation advocates were racking their brains for new ways to get the concept of air travel to really take off. In an attempt to develop more practical uses for the airplane, the concept of carrying freight was hopefully proposed and the work to make it a reality began. Since then, the capabilities of air cargo have soared to incredible heights and the future of the industry seems limitless.

Where it All Began 

In 1910, the first practical demonstration of air freight took flight as one department store send a bolt of silk from Dayton to Columbus, Ohio. The town’s paper that day reported that the shipment had beaten the railroad express between the two cities. It wasn’t until 1919, that the attempt to fly much heavier cargo was tried as the American Railway Express used converted a Handley-Page bomber to fly 1,100 pounds from DC to Chicago. A frozen radiator prevented a successful flight, but aviation experts remained determined.

The U.S. Postal Service, the Ford Company and American Railway Express were top names leading air cargo revolution in the 1920’s, later to be joined by National Air Transport, one of the companies that originally made up United Airlines, that was founded solely for carrying parcels and delivered the first air cargo in the United States.

Fast forward to 1931, where the volume of air freight grew to over 1 million pounds from just 45,859 pounds only 4 years prior. Despite impressive growth, air freight still only contributed to under 4% of all air traffic revenue at the time. But a couple years later, another big step was taken for air freight when United Airlines began its own air freight delivery service and initiated what is believed to be the very first all-cargo service in U.S. airline history.

During World War II, various governments deemed air cargo a necessity to transport troops and materials to war zones, and in the post-war, Cold War period, a mass air vessel undertaking was spearheaded by Europe in order to provide food and supplies to West Berlin civilians blockaded by the Soviet Union.

But it wasn’t until the 1980’s that a young entrepreneur named Fred Smith completely changed the face of the air freight industry with his belief that combining freight and passenger traffic required two totally different route patterns and in fact was slowing down cargo delivery. With his strong selling point of next-day delivery, he received the necessary financial support to launch an exclusive air delivery service, named Federal Express. In just 10 years, the company had 76 aircrafts and reported $1 billion in revenue.

Of course, FedEx’s most well-known competitor UPS can’t go unmentioned, having actually started back in 1907 as a bike-delivery service. With its first introduction to the air freight business being a contract service to retail stores. It wasn’t until 1953, the company began sustained air service and yet another 30 years later to receive permission from the FAA to operate its own airline verses leasing. Today, UPS delivers around 16 million packages a day compared to FedEx’s 3.5 million.

So where is future air freight going?

Today’s consumer expect nothing less than endless product choices, delivered faster than ever. This increasing demand is forcing shippers to evolve at incredible rates.  In the next 20 years, global air traffic is expected to grow 4.2% annually. And with air cargo accounting for 35% of the value of global trade, a lot is at stake in the future.

A variety of factors will determine the ability of air freight providers to meet these exponential demands, such as air cargo security, regulations, infrastructure and many other issues. But as we see how influential the industry has recently been around the globe, it’s collaborative growth is crucial. A recent report found that a 1% increase in air cargo connectivity directly resulted in a 6.3% increase in total imports and exports, not to mention creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.

While air freight remains a very challenging market, companies are looking to take full advantage of advanced robotics; from automated warehouses to predictive shipping and drone deliveries.  This means a need for strong internal IT operations to make it all possible and execute these new age tactics effectively.

The future of air cargo will require its big players to be as sharp and agile as possible to meet these increasing demands and supply, but in the ever-evolving digital world we live in, one thing is for sure; the sky’s the limit for what tomorrow may bring.

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