Transporting merchandise by air, in addition to mail, was not necessarily an attractive proposition. Aircraft were limited in space and range, and had no real appeal for anything except small freight and letters. It was just a marginal activity, one that Air France progressively integrated in the 1930s. The holds of its planes contained newspapers (especially between Paris and London), gloves (towards Scandinavia), and perfumes (towards England).
Everything changed after the war. The use of air freight had increased during the six-year conflict. It had become common with increasingly high-performance planes. Between 1938 and 1950, global passenger traffic increased by 1700%, and postal traffic by 600%. Freight increased 4500%! Airlines began making a profit from the holds of their planes, and also started all-cargo flights, like Air France, which opened a route between Paris and Algiers.
In the 1960s, the arrival of jets led to a real industrialisation of the sector. Hold volume went from 20 m3 in a Lockheed Constellation to 40 m3 in a Boeing B-707. Above all, when modernising its fleet, Air France – like other airlines – liberated dozens of piston engine planes that were "recycled" for freight.
THE FLIGHT OF THE "PÉLICAN"
The first cargo jets entered into service in 1963. The Boeing 707-320C (known as the "Pélican" at Air France) could transport 40 tonnes of cargo. Loading was optimised using containers, which had just been invented. Air France opened its first freight terminal in Orly, and it sometimes saw unusual cargo, including cars, horses, and works of art.
As rates went down, air freight took a considerable role in commercial trade. 13,000 tonnes of products were transported in 1955 above the North Atlantic, the "King's Highway" of air traffic. 15 years later, that figure reached 410,000 tonnes.
The sector was eager to see the arrival of the first wide-body aircraft. In its cargo version, the Boeing 747 could hold up to 110 tonnes of merchandise, nearly three times more than a B-707-320C. Air France adopted this "Super Pélican" in 1974.
A TRUE AIR FRANCE PROFESSION
Freight became an integral profession within Air France. It made up more than 22% of the airline's activity at the beginning of the 1970s. A dedicated division, Air France Cargo, was created in 1972. However, the petrol crisis dealt a firm blow to the aviation sector. The air freight landscape changed. New players appeared, including charter companies and express shippers. Air France remained a leading player (the world leader in 1985) but little by little, a new distribution of air freight took shape in the 1980s and 1990s. Traffic was divided between all-freight airlines (10% in 1996), integrated cargo express carriers (15%), passenger airlines (39%) and finally passenger airlines with cargo planes (36%).
NUMBER ONE IN THE WORLD, AFTER THE INTEGRATORS
Air France belongs to this last category, even though it now favours placing freight in the holds of its passenger planes. It relies on 3,000 networks and a network of 200 destinations, located around 4 large freight terminals, including Paris-Charles de Gaulle. There's also its fleet of 15 all-cargo planes. Associated with KLM in Air France-KLM Cargo, it is currently the world's leading operator in the sector, after the integrators.