The decrease of air freight, an opportunity for commercial airlines?


Air freight : situation and players

It is a bad time for air freight. In June 2019, the world traffic fell by 4.8% in tonne-kilometer (TKM) compared to the same period in 2018 (1). The International Air Transport Association (IATA) attributes this decline to rising kerosene prices, Sino-American trade tensions and protests in Hong Kong – forcing world’s first cargo airport to shut down temporarily.

Contrary to public opinion, the decline in traffic affects both commercial airlines and all-cargo airlines.

Indeed, close to 70% of world air freight (in TKM) is transported in cargo decks of commercial aircrafts. Moreover, the top 10 freight carriers are occupied by 7 commercial airlines against 3 cargo specialists only.

Freight constitutes 10 to 20% of commercial airlines revenues. To compensate the freight deceleration, the latter will have to capitalize more on passenger revenues in order to ensure their growth.

Cargo decks of commercial planes are becoming an additional source of revenue to leverage.

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The innovation offered by Airbus and Safran

In March 2018, Airbus and Zodiac Aerospace (now Safran Cabin) announced a partnership for the development and launch of passenger units located on the lower decks of A330s – space previously reserved for passenger luggage and cargo.

The partnership glimpses sleeper units, lounge, areas for children and meeting rooms. Safran Cabin which already produces rest units for on-board staff, would like to extend its services to passengers until 2020. This additional comfort feature arises with the return of ultra long-haul flights, made possible with planes capable of covering previously unattainable distances (A350-900 ULR and 777-8X).

© Airbus SAS 2017 – All rights reserved.

The passenger units will be easily interchangeable with the regular freight containers and will constitute an alternative to compensate the vacant lower cargo deck led by the decrease of cargo freight. These new services, sold as a paid option, are very timely for airlines which want to optimize each square meter on their planes.

© Airbus SAS 2017 – All rights reserved.

In addition to being a source of alternative revenues when cargo demand is low or not profitable enough on some routes, the pods allow airline companies to differentiate their offers and “upgrade” their service level at lower costs, without structural modification of the seats and the cockpit.

The concept raises a clear business interest – AirFrance-KLM is interested in equipping its A330s – however it must be validated by the European Aviation Safety Agency and the American FAA. Therefore, the units will become an additional profitability lever in an industry where average profit per passenger per year (6.12$) doesn’t exceed the price of a Big Mac in Switzerland. (3)  

5 digital solutions serving production and maintenance at Airbus

Airliner in motion on abstract background of highrise and binary code

The world air traffic, catalyzed by the expansion of economies, in particular in India, China and Middle East, meets an unprecedented growth. Airbus plans a demand close to 37,400 aircrafts until 2037. This represents a yearly average evolution of +4.4%.

In 2018, Airbus demonstrated record throughputs on assembly chains, with an average of 66.6 A320 models produced each month. Coupled to an order book of 7,525 aircrafts or 9.38 years to the current production rate, the manufacturer aims at intensifying furthermore its cadences thanks to digital tools.


Solution 1

Each player on the aerospace market only detains a fraction of the data of his environment. Partnered with Palantir, Airbus rolled out in 2017 its new data platform called Skywise. This platform aims at increasing the value chain via crucial data sharing among players of the aerospace industry.

  • Suppliers: details and availability of components
  • Manufacturers: design, production and MRO
  • Airline companies: flight data and passenger behaviors
  • Airports: plane, passenger and luggage movements

Skywise gathers all the data of 22 airline companies, 2,500 planes, 12 million flights and 25 million maintenance files.  With digital, Airbus divided its problem resolution time by 3 for the assembly of the A350 and it respected the increase of production cadences of this program. In the future, Airbus plans to incorporate supplier data (currently hosted on a separate platform) as well as partner airport data.

Solution 2

In cooperation with a major consulting firm, Airbus developed smart glasses improving precision and reducing the complexity of cabin planning processes. The seat marking is a long process because the specificities between plane categories and planning according to airline company requirements makes standardization impossible. This “wearable” technology divides by 6 the required time for seat marking.

Solution 3

A key element of 4.0 aerospace production is the creation of IoT “digital twins”. These virtual copies replicate the characteristics of a product or a physical process. The coupling of virtual and physical worlds allows to analyze data and monitoring systems in order to prevent issues before they even occur, avoid down times and plan the future by using simulations. The Safran-GE joint venture called CFM International pairs each LEAP engine provided to Airbus with a digital avatar, providing a real-time diagnosis of engines in circulation and idle ones.


Solution 4

Airbus equips each of its aircrafts with an average of 20,000 embedded MRO sensors in order to identify defective equipment and structural parts that need to be changed. This way, this process helps to optimize the exploitation and lifespan of the plane.

The anomalies identified by the Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) lead to anticipating a change of parts or equipment rather than a repair – the Turn Around Time (TAT) of an equipment renewal being usually shorter than the repair – and limits duration of AOGs (Aircraft On Ground).

In parallel, the parts aimed at the spare part fleet are produced in an anticipated way, reducing stocks and production times. The demand for “spare parts” is then satisfied without jeopardizing the production of parts targeted to the initial aircraft assembly.

Solution 5

Partnering with Dassault Systems, Airbus announced the roll-out of the 3DEXPERIENCE platform to support its digital transformation. 3DEXPERIENCE lays the foundation of a numerical consistency, from conception to operations, in a single data model for a unified user experience throughout all product divisions and categories. With this implementation, Airbus hopes a robust production configuration coupled to an increase of its prototype development lead times.

Avec ces outils, Airbus entend booster sa capacité à produire vite et bien. De la conception, avec 3DEXPERIENCE, en passant par la production, avec les lunettes intelligentes, jusqu’à la maintenance, à l’aide de capteurs et répliques virtuelles, les solutions digitales représentent un gisement de valeur déterminant pour Airbus, dont Skywise devient progressivement la colonne vertébrale.