On a long-haul commercial international flight, the aircraft is also moving cargo.
The fact is that today, $60 billion U.S. dollars are spent on air cargo every year. The value of goods transported by air every year exceeds $6 trillion US dollars. (Source ICAO, IATA)
This huge volume is made up of cargo from almost every sector of the worldwide economy. High value manufactured goods, pharmaceuticals, high fashion items and perishable foodstuffs move every day. Emergency humanitarian items are routinely sent by air as well. Recently, many tons of relief supplies have been flown to Haiti from donor countries around the world.
Surprisingly, in addition to the air cargo that flies on scheduled commercial flights, hundreds of full freighter aircraft carrying up to 100 metric tons each crisscross the globe every day. Everyone is familiar with the ubiquitous FedEx and UPS delivery trucks, but did you know that FedEx operates a fleet of over 650 freighter aircraft and UPS operates a fleet of over 230 aircraft. Amazon has recently created their own fleet by leasing 20 Boeing 767 freighter aircraft, which will be based out of a facility about 50 miles from Cincinnati and 490 miles from Toronto.
Knowing this, it is easy to understand how you can order a product on-line in Toronto on Monday and receive in just a few days, even if it is coming from Shanghai! Large online retailers have warehouses around the world, but they cannot stock every single item at each warehouse. When the closest warehouse does not have stock or does not carry the item you want, it is likely sent on its way to you by air.
There is more to the story. Freighter aircraft are often chartered for very special purposes, such as moving livestock for breeding, racehorses as well as race cars such as the ones that you see on the Formula One circuit. Even huge machinery is moved by airfreight. Major engineering projects may be sourcing materials and equipment from manufacturers around the world. With project milestone deadlines to meet, the largest cargo aircraft in the world, such as the Antonov 225 are called into action. This aircraft can carry an astounding 225 tons of freight with dimensions up to a diameter of 33 feet and a length of 231 feet.
The next time you see a plane taking off, imagine what interesting air cargo it might be carrying. It could be a lobster headed for a dinner table in Paris or a lifesaving drug on its way to a sick patient. On the other hand, it could be that very expensive pair of designer jeans that you saw on line!