The air cargo industry currently has four business models for air cargo transport: passenger airlines, all-cargo carriers, integrated express carriers, and combination aircraft carriers. The industry primarily revolves around the first three listed models, with combination aircraft carriers uncommon in modern aviation.

Passenger Airlines

Although it is not its primary purpose, a passenger airline can contribute to the air cargo industry by selling space in the storage compartment of its aircraft after passenger-related items are boarded. This practice is incredibly commonplace, with freight hauling comprising 5-10% of the revenue of commercial airlines.

Despite passenger airlines having limited cargo space compared to dedicated cargo freighters, they offer increased flexibility in scheduling and operation due to the higher frequency of flights and variety of destinations.

Fun fact: The U.S. Postal Service leases space on about 15,000 of the estimated 25,000 passenger flights that take off daily! 

All-Cargo Carriers

All-cargo carriers offer airport-to-airport cargo and freight services but no passenger services. These carriers generally utilize scheduled wide-body and containerized air cargo to transport goods for businesses and governments. Some examples of current all-cargo carriers are Atlas Air, Kalitta, and Polar Air Cargo.

Integrated Express Carriers

Likely the service most people are familiar with, integrated express carriers focus on transporting customer goods from door-to-door with shipment collection, transportation, and delivery services. Notable integrated express carriers include FedEx, UPS, and DHL. Integrated express carriers are unique in that they offer next-day and time-sensitive services and delivery of smaller packages (<70 lbs.) However, many of these companies are also exploring heavy freight business models.

Combination Aircraft Carriers

Combination aircraft carriers are air cargo carriers that have both passenger and freighter aircraft in their fleet. While the combination aircraft carrier business model is uncommon, a select few companies in modern aviation operate through the model, including Cathay Pacific, Emirates, and Lufthansa.

Combination aircraft carriers may operate “combi aircraft” within their fleet, although the two are technically unrelated. Combi aircraft are simply aircraft designed to simultaneously operate as both a passenger and cargo carrier.