The air freight sector is struggling to find aircraft to move medical equipment and other urgent supplies – often from Asia to the West – as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

The removal of most of the world’s belly-cargo capacity amid the mass grounding of long-haul passenger aircraft has led to freight rates “spiraling”, with “extraordinarily high” prices being charged by operators of Boeing 747 and other dedicated freighters.

These were some of the views of panelists on a webinar held by FlightGlobal’s sister publication Air Cargo News on 15 April to discuss the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on the air freight market.

It has also led to fears that when lockdowns are lifted and global trade picks up again, there will not be enough passenger aircraft to meet demand.

Rates being charged by some freighter operators rose by 150% between mid-March and mid-April, according to Dan Morgan-Evans, group cargo director with Air Charter Service, a UK-based charter brokerage. “It is very difficult to find freighters,” he said. “I have never seen it in 20 years [of working in the industry].”

He added that if economies start to open again in July with an easing of stay-at-home rules, “the belly space won’t be there” because many passengers will still be reluctant to fly and financially damaged airlines will struggle to re-open viable routes.

Gerard de Wit, founder and managing director of data service WorldACD, said travelers had for a long time “benefited from where cargo is going”. With many long-haul services viable only with strong demand for belly cargo and from passengers, it could “take a long time for many routes to return”.

David Wystrach, senior director airfreight EMEA at freight forwarder Flexport, predicted that the coronavirus crisis could lead to Western companies relaxing their dependence on single-source suppliers in Asia, something that could “change the market environment for airlines”.

He also said that demand was increasing for shipments of computer equipment from East to West as a result of a huge spike in home working, alongside pharmaceutical and medical items. However, the crisis had seen a drop of up to 60% in consignments of perishable goods such as fruit and vegetables and flowers, he added.

Several airlines have started to fly passenger aircraft on cargo-only services, using adapted cabins.