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Workers unload goods onto a plane at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, where recent cases of coronavirus among workers have caused freight delays and diverted flights. Photo: AFP

China cargo freight: coronavirus cases divert flights at Shanghai airport, ‘serious backlog’ expected

  • Cathay Pacific Cargo says freight has been cancelled and warehouses at Shanghai Pudong International Airport are overflowing with outbound cargo
  • Labour shortage expected at airport as staff are required to work 14 days, then quarantine for 14 days, even with a negative coronavirus test, according to SEKO Logistics

Delays in deliveries and goods shipments through China’s largest cargo airport are mounting as new coronavirus infections have cancelled flights and disrupted the customs-clearance process, resulting in higher air freight prices and more strain on recovering supply chains, according to airlines and logistics providers.

Mixed messages about cargo operations have also raised questions about the extent of the delays, as authorities at Shanghai Pudong International Airport have not provided details about cargo suspensions but are said to have notified logistics providers, airlines and traders directly through online social media notices.

On Friday, two cargo workers tested positive for the coronavirus at the Pudong Air Cargo Terminal (PACTL) – one of the airport’s two terminals –prompting a suspension of its cargo aircraft operations. Three more positive cases were confirmed on Saturday.

Airport authorities said that they had quarantined and tested 143 close contacts of the five infected workers as of Monday, plus 942 secondary contacts. It remained unclear on Tuesday when regular cargo operations at PACTL would resume.

The impact of this suspension will see a serious backlog in Pudong … Cargo flight cancellations are impacting airfreight rates
SEKO Logistics spokeswoman

As a result, airlines and freight forwarders were scrambling over the weekend to divert cargo shipments and deliveries to other airports, international freight expert SEKO Logistics said.

“The impact of this suspension will see a serious backlog in Pudong in the coming days. Airlines are diverting flights to airports to the south or west of China,” a SEKO spokeswoman said. “Key Chinese airport gateways have applied a ‘closed-loop management’ rule due to the increase in coronavirus cases, meaning that the export-handling speed is 30 to 40 per cent of the normal [pace], and import cargo [has to] meet very strict inspections. Cargo flight cancellations are impacting airfreight rates.”

However, Shanghai Customs and two cargo workers at PACTL attempted to downplay the impact on Monday, telling the Post that the cargo business was operating normally.

The airport terminal’s closure came after a shipping container terminal was closed at the Ningbo-Zhoushan Port on August 11 following a worker’s positive coronavirus test. Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that ships had resumed berthing operations at the halted container port, adding to optimism that full activity at one of the world’s busiest ports would be restored soon.

The airport and shipping port are about 130km (80 miles) apart, as the crow flies.

Some freight forwarders were also considering alternative export methods, including a combination of ferry and air service via South Korea, or container shipping and air service via Singapore or Dubai, according to SEKO.

SEKO itself had been redirecting cargo bound for the United States and Europe to airports in other Chinese cities, including Zhengzhou, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Pudong’s cargo business will also be hampered by a labour shortage, as all staff are being required to work for 14 days and quarantine for the following 14, SEKO added.


“This has impacted ground operations, causing delays and flight cancellations,” the SEKO spokeswoman said. “Airlines now have only three hours at the terminal to load and unload cargo before the aircraft must depart. In this case, we have now seen flights unable to offload any cargo before having to depart from Pudong carrying the freight back to its origin.”

Some planes also reportedly departed empty or with less than a full load over the weekend, with downstream supply chains potentially facing the knock-on effects of these disruptions.

Cathay Pacific Cargo experienced similar problems, saying they had to limit their acceptance of cargo, had diverted goods to Zhengzhou, and would be handling deliveries by truck. They also said a lot of their freight had already been cancelled and that warehouses at the airport were overflowing with outbound cargo.

An importer who was expecting milk from Australia had to divert his shipment to Guangzhou. He said cold-chain airfreight traders – those who rely on a temperature-controlled supply chain and use aircraft for a quicker turnaround – were concerned that the new delays would be similar to those seen across China last year when the coronavirus was said to have been found on seafood packaging.

He speculated that terminal authorities at the airport may stop allowing in perishables, but there was no indication of that happening yet.

There has also been no indication of passenger flights being affected.


Wang Xiaojie, deputy director of the Shanghai Municipal Transportation Commission, was quoted by local media on Sunday as saying that “passenger and cargo planes are strictly separated” at Pudong airport. Wang also said that, while air-cargo services would be affected “to a certain extent”, it would be business as usual for passenger services.

Meanwhile, a ground staff member confirmed that airlines were cutting flights. Cargo schedules for various airlines, including mainland carriers China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines indicated that flight routes were being adjusted, he said.


Reached for comment, a China Eastern Airlines spokesman said its cargo terminal and cargo flights were “operating normally”, but that there would be adjustments to its “passenger-to-freighter” conversions – when passenger jets are modified to carry cargo.

For now, SEKO expects more flight cancellations, but does not yet anticipate delays at Pudong to impact Christmas deliveries.

Pudong Airport is the largest cargo airport in China, according to data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

In 2020, its cargo and mail throughput reached 3.686 million tonnes, accounting for 23 per cent of the country’s total airport throughput.

The most recent monthly throughput total, for July, reached 356,000 tonnes – an increase of 14.9 per cent year on year.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Delays in cargo deliveries mount at Shanghai airport