Philip Orin Parmelee hopped out of his tiny plane on November 7, 1910. He had just set a new world speed record after flying between Dayton and Columbus, Ohio—a distance of 65 miles—in only 57 minutes. What made Parmelee’s flight historic wasn’t the speed, however, but the fact that he had transported 100 pounds of silk for delivery to a local store. It was the world’s first air cargo operation.
Today, more than a century after Parmelee’s flight, air freight is a massive global industry that carries at least 35% of the value of total world trade according to a recent report by the aircraft manufacturer Boeing. In fact, in the report, Boeing predicts that global air cargo traffic will grow by an annual average of 4.2% for the next 20 years. While these increases will help to bind the world together through trade, they raise an important question: How will air freight providers evolve and adapt in the coming years to benefit businesses and consumers in every corner of the globe?
One approach that’s generating a lot of buzz—and not just from the whirring of rotors—is the use of drones to transport goods and make deliveries. Consumers love the spectacle of an unmanned vehicle speeding packages straight to their door, and while this technology is in development, most experts predict that large-scale use of drones in door-to-door delivery is years away at least. Legal restrictions prevent drones from operating outside the line-of-sight of operators, so regulations will need to change before drones enter widespread service, and there are still technical problems to solve before these vehicles can be sent into the crowded airspace of populated areas.
However, it may be possible for companies to send cargo via drone to remote areas in places like Alaska, where poor infrastructure and intense weather conditions make deliveries all but impossible. Drone deliveries to these areas would enable speedy service less expensively and without the concerns of flying through congested airspace.
Another change on the horizon for the air freight industry is greater incorporation of data into operations. New web-enabled devices make it possible for all parties in supply chains—from suppliers to consumers and even pilots in midair—to stay in constant contact and share information, and advanced programs allow for the instant analysis of massive data sets. Air freight providers will need to incorporate these tools in order for data to drive innovation and insights at all levels of their business. Their clients and consumers, after all, deserve the accompanying improvements to service, efficiency, and cost that data can convey.