Airlines doing all they can to boost freight capacity as Covid-19 puts pressure on NZ exports

Covid-19's impact on international travel continues to put pressure on the movement of New Zealand goods around the globe.

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Most freight usually travels in the cargo hold of passenger planes, but space is limited because of the massive drop in flights. Source: 1 NEWS

Around 80 per cent of air freight usually goes in the bellyhold of passenger planes, but with international flights slashed from around 600 per week to 120, space is limited.

"All up there's been a 46 per cent drop in cargo capacity," said Scott Tasker, Auckland Airport's aeronautical commercial manager.

But airlines are doing all they can to boost capacity, and that's crucial ahead of peak export season.

Air Canada was one of the first airlines to make the most of trips by clearing out its passenger seats, making more room for product.

"It's like a big dance hall with stuff in the middle. It's very different," captain Andrew Kawa told 1 NEWS of he repurposed airliner. "This airplane usually holds 450 people, and not more than a year ago I was flying this airplane and it was jam-packed."

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Captain Andrew Kawa is used to flying up to 450 people, but now he’s transporting car parts, pets, and produce from Auckland Airport. Source: 1 NEWS

Goods exported and imported were collectively worth $9 billion in September.

With air freight key for trade, the Government's subsidising flights for eight airlines on main routes, but that could increase with a second phase of the scheme next month.

"Those decisions haven't been made but that's certainly possible," Transport Minister Michael Wood told 1 NEWS. "One of the important things about this scheme is it's very nuanced and driven by what's needed out there.

"Our objective is really clear: It's to make sure New Zealand has access to the export markets that are important for us, and that we can import the critical goods we need to keep people safe and to keep our economy moving."

In a statement the Transport Ministry said it's received over a dozen proposals from providers.

Auckland Airport's Tasker said having the required amount of cargo capacity in place is "critical over the peak period when we have perishables like fruit, seafood, and other products going to market".

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Take a look inside an Air Canada passenger plane that’s been converted to carry freight

Connections are not as good as they used to be, said David Ballard, managing director of flower exporter New Zealand Bloom.

"There are still a few markets we struggle to serve," he explained. "We need to ship flowers to about 25 different countries, so you need a lot of different airlines and routes to be able to service that."

It's peak season for peonie exports, and, Ballard said, "if we can't move them by air, they're not worth anything".

Passengers usually subsidise airfreight rates, so until travel returns sending products comes at a higher price to exporters.

"More competition is really critical to keep the rates down," Ballard said. "They've ended up being about 35 per cent more expensive than what we were operating at pre-Covid. That's quite meaningful and effects grower returns."

He said it's not sustainable long term, but air travel's the only option for flowers like peonies.

There are 10,000 boxes set to be sent overseas before the end of the year.