British Airways Air Freight Surges at PIT

Airline surpasses major cargo milestone

By Evan Dougherty and Rick Wills

Published May 13, 2024

Read Time: 4 mins

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British Airways’ nonstop service to London isn’t solely about connecting Pittsburghers to Europe and beyond. It also transports valuable products between the region and the rest of the world.

While the carrier is seeing surging passenger numbers on its Pittsburgh-London route, a similar trend is occurring in its cargo holds below the passenger cabin.

Year-to-date, British Airways has carried more than 1.3 million pounds of cargo and is on pace to carry 5.2 million pounds, easily surpassing last year’s total of 4.8 million pounds.

Those increases have propelled the carrier to become the fourth-largest airline by freight volume at PIT, only behind dedicated cargo airlines FedEx, UPS Airlines and Amazon Air.

Passing the 10-million-pound mark

British Airways resumed flights to PIT in 2019 after a 20-year hiatus. Even with service paused due to the pandemic, the airline surpassed 10 million pounds of air cargo volume in early April.

“It’s a milestone, and there is still lots of space for growth,” said Roy Linkner, an aviation consultant with 40 years of experience who formerly worked for British Airways.

This year, the airline has increased year-over-year air cargo volumes each month on the Pittsburgh-to-London route.

British Airways flies six round trips a week between PIT and London in the summer and four round trips a week during colder months. The airline’s Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft can transport up to 15 tons of cargo on every flight.

Increased frequencies to London are providing more opportunities for shipments bound to and from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India.

A multitude of products and companies are relying on British Airways’ service to Pittsburgh: automotive and manufacturing parts, baby formula and other goods.

“The general public doesn’t generally think of passenger airplanes carrying cargo. They think of planes carrying their own baggage. But air cargo on passenger aircraft is a big business,” said Joe Rotterdam, PIT’s director of air service development, who oversees the airport’s cargo operations.

Widebody passenger aircraft, such as the Boeing 787, are used to transport freight in unit load devices (ULDs)—containers designed to securely load, transport and unload luggage, freight and mail—underneath the passenger cabin. Depending on cargo volume, ULDs can be a container, pallet or group of pallets ranging in different sizes.

The 787-8 British Airways uses on the Pittsburgh-London route can transport between 4-5 ULDs in the forward and aft cargo compartments. The 787-8 is compatible with ULDs providing between 150 and 395 cubic feet of cargo capacity.

Ground crews unload unit load devices (ULDs) from a British Airways 787-8 Dreamliner at PIT on April 8, 2024. (Photo by Evan Dougherty)

Costly, but worth it

Air cargo is one of the leading indicators of world trade. And while it amounts to only 1 percent of such trade, air cargo accounts for 35 percent of the value of international trade. Shipping by air is more costly than shipping by boat.

“It’s about time versus value,” said Linkner. “It’s why fresh foods like cherries, blueberries from South America show up on store shelves in the middle of winter.”

What gets shipped can be anything from the routine to the exotic, Rotterdam said.

“There’s lots of automotive parts, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment,” he said. “During the pandemic, there was hand sanitizer, personal protective equipment – items that would not normally get shipped by air.”

Shipping by air has taken off largely from an explosion in e-commerce, which Morgan Stanley expects to keep growing.

More from Iceland

Global freight at PIT is expected to further increase when Icelandair launches nonstop seasonal flights between Pittsburgh and Reykjavik, Iceland, on May 16.

Operating four times a week through late October, Icelandair is expected to bring more fresh seafood to Pittsburgh restaurants and supermarkets.

Meanwhile, progress continues on PIT’s new 77,000 square-foot Cargo 4 facility, which will be dedicated to international freight. Scheduled to open in late 2024, Cargo 4 will significantly enhance PIT’s already-growing capabilities in handling cargo from around the world.

Despite industry and political headwinds, the air cargo market is growing faster than the overall economy.

According to the International Air Transport Association’s data for March, global air cargo total demand, measured in cargo ton-kilometers, rose 10.3 percent compared to March 2023 and more than 11 percent for international air cargo.

It’s the fourth straight month of double-digit year-on-year demand growth, the association says. For the first time, cumulative freight traffic in the first quarter surpassed the industry’s record heights experienced in the first quarter of 2021 by 0.4 percent.

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