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Air Cargo Services Support the Post-COVID Economy

March 31, 2020

It's probably an understatement to say that we're all acutely aware of how social distancing is impacting our daily lives at the moment. But think of all the products that are coming to your house and consider the supply chain that brings it. COVID-19 is altering life as we know it. But it’s also decimating — and in a few cases helping — the economy. Air cargo shipping through SEA Airport, deemed an essential service by the federal government, is keeping goods flowing in and out of the Pacific Northwest. Although passenger counts are down as much as 80-90 percent at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), air cargo shipping is increasing, not slowing down. And more than ever, the airport provides a vital link between suppliers, ecommerce companies, local manufacturers and businesses, and their markets. 

Post-COVID cargo

In the post-COVID-19 economy, passenger travel is restricted by the federal government, but these prohibitions do not extend to commercial air cargo transport. SEA will continue to remain open and keep commerce moving and continue to support jobs, the economy, and pandemic relief efforts. Statistics through February 2020 show the airport’s cargo tonnage is up 4.5 percent. In particular, domestic freight has risen 10.5 percent.

Here are a few examples of the goods that are still traveling from SEA Airport to markets in Asia: 

  • Industrial equipment
  • Consumer items
  • Perishables
  • Products that companies and industries in the region produce – essential businesses are still manufacturing materials that need to get to market 
  • Goods that were produced before the restrictions were put in place are shipping their products to market to sustain their businesses

Cargo lifeline

In general, two thirds of the air cargo out of SEA Airport travels in all-cargo jets, which are especially important for delivering packages between our region and the rest of the country through logistics companies like FedEx, DHL, and Amazon. Amazon provides the leading ecommerce air cargo operation at SEA, and is maintaining its operations during the COVID-19 pandemic to meet the demand for online shopping and other needed supplies.

In 2019, the top five airlines ranked by air freight market share were:

FedEx 27.0%
Air Transport Int’l (ATI) 20.9%  
Alaska Airlines 7.5%
Delta Air Lines 5.9%
ABX Air  4.8%


About one-third of all air cargo at SEA travels underneath the passenger level in the belly of the aircraft and is referred to as “belly cargo.” When passenger flights are not flying, cargo that would have flown aboard is also grounded. Now that many passenger flights have been suspended due to COVID-19, the logistics supply chain has worked to find cargo space on freighter flights and to prioritize the cargo that needs to go out first. That makes flying all-cargo freighters — during this time of critical need and reduced overall capacity — especially important.

Supporting economic health

Commercial and other trade through the airport has been defined by the federal government as an essential service. And SEA Airport is the region’s air cargo gateway hub.  We understand how important it is to keep commerce moving by air, and to support shipments of needed medical supplies (like personal protective equipment, masks, and ventilators) into our area.  

Another positive element is keeping workers employed, as many of these essential jobs must be performed in person. Planes need pilots to fly supplies and people to load and unload planes. The airport and our aviation partners have instituted measures to keep employees safe, like increased availability of hand sanitizers, more handwashing and sanitizing stations, and maintaining appropriate social distance so air cargo services for the region can continue.

Supporting local businesses

Before the pandemic, Taylor Shellfish, a Shelton business, was able to expand its international sales channel through belly cargo on passenger flights out of SEA Airport (as seen in the 2019 interview below).  According to Bill Dewey, director of Public Affairs for Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, air freight out of SEA allowed them to expand to international markets.

 “Half of our products go to markets via {SEA Airport} .. having SEA and reliable air freight to these destinations is absolutely critical … The eight million pounds of shellfish a year that we move out through SEA every year are creating hundreds of jobs up and down the distribution channel. We’ve really come to rely on those international markets for the growth of the company. If we didn’t have that we’d really be limited in what we would be able to do from a growth standpoint.”

In 2020, the suspension of passenger flights has made it difficult for local producers like Taylor Shellfish who depend on their perishable cargo going to market via belly cargo on passenger jets. Airlines have moved their cargo to freighter jets which impacts space available for other shippers like Taylor. Just about one year later, Dewey reflects on the current state:

 “Sales for Taylor Shellfish Farms and others in the shellfish industry have largely evaporated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Their export markets collapsed in China and Hong Kong right before the Lunar New Year followed by domestic sales with the closure of restaurants in Washington and across the United States.”  

Dewey says that one bright spot among the chaos at home is that demand is starting to pick back up in Asia.

 “It’s a welcome development but unfortunately due to the reduction in flights they are struggling to find cargo space to meet that demand.”  

He’s hoping that airlines impacted by lack of passengers will recognize this cargo opportunity as a win-win for both airlines and the shellfish industry.

Air cargo before COVID

For years, air cargo services at SEA Airport have been an economic engine that supports the region’s economy, and it’s more important now than ever. A few stats about air cargo at SEA before COVID-19:

  • SEA was ranked 19th among U.S. airports for air cargo tonnage in 2018  
  • SEA handled 453,549 metric tons of air cargo in 2019
  • An estimated $12.7 billion of air freight is exported to domestic and international markets through SEA each year, while another $13.6 billion is imported
  • Air freight shipped through SEA sustains 119,685 jobs representing over $5.5 billion in wages and salaries and $521 million in state and local taxes
  • The total economic value in Washington State associated with the air freight loaded at SEA Airport is estimated to be $22.7 billion

Cargo commodities

The top export commodities by value in 2019:

  • Electronic Integrated Circuits
  • Civilian Aircraft Engines and Parts
  • Medical/Surgical Apparatus
  • Semiconductor Machinery
  • Automated Data Process Machines    

The top import commodities by value in 2019:

  • Industrial Machinery
  • Electronic Integrated Circuits
  • Other Unspecified Provisions 
  • Optic/Photo and Medical/Surgical Instruments 
  • Aircraft Engines and Parts
Read more about the economic impact of SEA Airport on the region's economy

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