Air cargo: CMA CGM Air Cargo takes off on Europe-US trade lane

Liege Airport will be the home base of CMA CGM Air Cargo's first two freighter aircraft that will be operated by Air Belgium. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

The long-haul plans of CMA CGM's new air cargo division were revealed Tuesday with the announcement that a regular service between Liege, Belgium, and Chicago will be launched on March 8.

CMA CGM did not disclose whether the air cargo capacity on the trans-Atlantic service, to be marketed by general sales agent ECS Group, will be offered to the wider market or reserved for customers of the carrier and its subsidiaries.

A spokesperson for the carrier did not immediately have an answer to a question about the pool of customers.

The company said in a statement Tuesday that capacity would be secured via a blocked space agreement (BSA) developed with CMA CGM subsidiary CEVA Logistics.

Even if the space is reserved for customers of the CMA CGM Group, the Liege-Chicago service will be a welcome addition to a trade lane that lost more than 50 percent of its available air cargo capacity when trans-Atlantic travel bans last February and March grounded most passenger flights.

The limited capacity and high demand has kept rates elevated ever since. Despite falling slightly over the last three weeks, rates on Europe-US routes this week were 131 percent higher year over year at £4.17 per kilogram, according to the TAC Index.

Xavier Eiglier, director of CMA CGM Air Cargo, said the trans-Atlantic service was part of the CMA CGM Group's strategic expansion of its reach into non-ocean logistics.

"These initial destinations in the United States demonstrate our desire to offer our clients international coverage, serving the biggest freight airports in the heart of major economic areas," Eiglier said in the statement.

Capacity to double by mid-March

Air Belgium will operate the first of two Airbus 330-200 freighters deployed by CMA CGM Air Cargo on March 8, while the second aircraft will begin commercial operations on the Europe-US route on March 16, doubling the offered capacity to 120 tons.

The two freighters were acquired from Qatar Cargo and will be based at Liege, one of Europe's busiest freight hubs that is strategically located and served by intermodal transportation. 

CMA CGM Air Cargo plans to operate a fleet of four Airbus freighters in a move that furthers the carrier's strategic expansion into non-ocean logistics. The remaining two aircraft will be deployed in April, but CMA CGM has not yet disclosed their routes.

The ocean carrier is already present in the air freight business through its ownership of third-party provider CEVA Logistics, but the carrier made its first move into asset-based air cargo last September when it acquired a 30 percent stake in long-haul passenger airline Groupe Dubreuil Aero.

The investment secured access to belly cargo on 14 A350 aircraft serving French overseas territories via Groupe Dubreuil subsidiary HiLine Cargo.

Air cargo is playing an increasingly critical role in global supply chains that have been disrupted by uneven cargo flows, carriers blanking capacity on the major trades, and difficulties in shippers providing accurate demand forecasts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of Maersk's restructuring into an integrated, end-to-end logistics provider, the Danish carrier has brought Damco's air freight and less-than-container load (LCL) business into the Maersk logistics service offering.

Forwarders have also increased their use of chartered flights to secure additional capacity, extending trans-Pacific and European charter contracts for the rest of the year.

Contact Greg Knowler at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @greg_knowler.

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