By Marisa Garcia
August 25, 2019
Airplane being loaded with cargo
Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images

There’s much more than your luggage flying in the belly of your plane, and it helps airlines cover the financial gap of cheap fares.

Cargo carried by airlines helps cover the costs of cheap airfares, so it’s no surprise that the flowers, diamonds, fine cars, and race horses on board get the VIP treatment.

Air cargo transports $6 trillion in value of goods, and 52 million metric tonnes of cargo a year, earning airlines $1.62 a kilo (or $3.57 a pound), according to statistics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). That makes the $25 fees some airlines charge for 50 lbs of passenger luggage quite a bargain.

While many airlines have dedicated freighter aircraft that serve cargo functions, IATA says the shipments carried day-to-day are split evenly between freighter and passenger flights.

So what kinds of goodies might travel with you on the plane?

Planes help Santa deliver presents for Christmas in record time, but also come in handy throughout the year for holidays old and new. Air transport delivered 657 million packages of gifts bought on Single’s Day (11/11), valued at $17.8 billion, according to Forbes. In fact, the growth of online retail is contributing significantly to the airline cargo business, served by 3,200 airports around the world on 60,000 trade lanes.

The big advantage airlines offer shippers is speed, which makes it ideal for the transport of food. Your airplane may be helping to transport fresh lobster from Maine to Los Angeles, or the day’s catch of salmon delivered from Oslo to Tokyo. Many imported food items — from legumes to venison — find their way to grocery shelves and restaurants around the world every day thanks to the comprehensive network of passenger fights.

You may enjoy your in-flight wine, but better vintage flies under the aircraft cabin’s floor. The US wine industry exports 121.7 minion gallons of wine by air, valued at $1.61 billion.

Fast-flying planes also carry racers. Formula 1 flies 300 tonnes of equipment to 20 countries in a season. Each day there are over 200 race horses traveling by plane in specialized accommodations which include vitamin-rich snacks and beverages, even dedicated flight attendants.

Love is literally in the air. Airlines will transport over 80,000 flowers from gardens around the world every twenty-four hours. Last year LAN CARGO shipped 9,000 tons of flowers from Colombia and Ecuador to the U.S. and the Netherlands for Valentine’s Day, but flowers fly every day for spontaneous showing of affection. The Netherlands has been a major trading hub for flower sales for hundreds of years, so it’s very appropriate that KLM does a good business in flower shipping too. To commemorate 80 years of service to Singapore in 2013, KLM shipped 14 tonnes of tulips to Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, equal to 48,000 bulbs.

While email is the go-to for many communications, there are still 898 million letters flying on airplanes daily. We fancy some of them are love letters and postcards.

Speaking of love of another sort, a single tennis ball is made by transporting materials from 14 countries over 50,000 miles.

If you’re having trouble sleeping on the plane, maybe ponder the number of sheep that are flying too. LAN Cargo moved the moon and stars to safely transport 2,000 Magellan sheep from Chile to Ecuador in specially equipped freighter aircraft, with 670 sheep on each flight. There were 1,500 females and 507 male sheep transported in all, and the male sheep had separate quarters to ensure no funny business.

Airplane cargo on tarmac
Credit: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Air cargo also does good for the world. There are 62,500 tonnes of humanitarian aid delivered by air every year, and IATA estimates 6,849 lives saved every day thanks to critical medicines transported on aircraft. Airlink, a charity founded by aviation professionals, works with NGOs and airlines around the world to air lift critical supplies around the world as part of disaster recovery. Since it launched its services in 2010, the charity has carried over 4,000 passengers and 2,500,000 pounds of cargo — more than $6,000,000 in donations.

There is hidden treasure in the coffers of aircraft too, including luxury cars, gold, diamonds, and currency. In fact, one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time was the Lufthansa heist at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1978 which was featured in the Martin Scorsese movie "Goodfellas." It was a real event. The culprits got away with $5 million in cash and $1 million in jewelry, and it took the FBI until 2014 to identify and arrest those responsible. Airlines have learned important lessons on guarding precious cargo and it would be much more difficult to pull something off like that today.

Meeting the safe-handling and security needs of these priority shippers requires specialized equipment and protocols: adequate refrigeration facilities, animal housing and welfare procedures, pharmaceuticals and medical supplies handling certification, and much more.

IATA works with airlines and shippers to develop standards, procedures, and certification processes that airlines have to meet before they can qualify to offer different services including perishables transport, pharmaceuticals transport, and live animal transport.

The first cargo flight took off in 1910 when a department store in Ohio asked the Wright Brothers to transport 200 pounds of silk ribbon from Dayton to Columbus.

Some planes are more suited to cargo carriage than others, simply because of their capacity. The Boeing 747, 777, and 787 as well as the Airbus A300 and A350 are popular choices, though many flights are carrying some sort of cargo. Airlines even have special cargo conventions when they need critical parts to keep planes flying: COMAT (company materials) shipments get priority service.

But the captain gets the last word. While airlines carry many things by air, and their cargo departments arrange shipping, airline captains can refuse goods on passenger flights, if they don’t feel comfortable carrying them for any reason. That authority applies to the carriage of passengers too, so behave.

And not all valuable shipping happens in the cargo hold. Some people make a career of flying as couriers of critical goods in the cabin