Retailers Eye More Air Cargo as COVID Lockdowns Intensify in Vietnam

Airfreight rates from the Vietnam are rapidly escalating because of the spike in demand for all-cargo charter capacity. Adobe Stock

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on

Big apparel and footwear merchants are increasingly trying to switch from ocean to air transport to make up for huge production slowdowns in Vietnam due to COVID and ensure seasonal imports arrive on time for holiday shoppers.

Airfreight rates from the country are rapidly escalating because of the spike in demand for all-cargo charter capacity, according to logistics companies that manage freight movements.

The shift to cargo aircraft is underway as Vietnamese authorities, in response to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the south, extend by a month stringent controls on movement that have crippled factory production and sharply reduced freight activity at ports and airports.

Many factories remain closed.

“I can tell you there are a number of major U.S. retail brands that have pulled the trigger to say, ‘This style or this particular [product line] is no longer going to be on the ocean, it’s only going to go in the air,’” Evan Rosen, president of the Americas for EFL Global, told American Shipper.

EFL is a freight forwarder with strong expertise supporting the fashion industry.

Mode conversion has been a part of importers’ risk mitigation strategies — especially out of China — much of the year to deal with ongoing supply disruption and port congestion issues. Ocean carriers don’t have enough vessels and equipment to support record demand from North America.

But replacing ocean transport with air is now becoming more of a necessity for some companies operating in Vietnam.

“With the factories behind on production … it has to move by air because the production schedule is going to be significantly delayed. There’s no way they’re going to be able to put it on an unreliable ocean service” with delivery times measured in weeks, Rosen said. “So everybody wants to flip to air. Vietnam will become a very difficult market very quickly.”

Air Capacity Challenges

The COVID situation has also reduced air cargo capacity. Social distancing measures and shorter working hours have caused work slowdowns at Ho Chi Minh Airport. Passenger flights that provide extra cargo space are scarce because travel demand is extremely low. Meanwhile, extra airlift isn’t feasible because authorities have temporarily stopped granting landing rights for ad hoc charter flights, Rosen said.

Cargo airlines with pre existing approvals are flying with two crews on board so that when one disembarks to rest, and is subject to a mandatory quarantine period, another crew is ready to take its place, the EFL executive said. It’s an expensive approach that reduces the number of crews available to fly and is only considered as a last resort by some carriers, but reflects what some shippers are willing to pay to avoid lost sales.

EFL is contracting with five or six airlines for about 20 to 30 charter flights per week to guarantee uplift, especially cargo-only passenger flights, to get customer shipments moved from Vietnam and other parts of Asia to the U.S., Rosen said.

Renting an entire cargo jet from Vietnam to Chicago, for example, now costs at least $1.1 million to $1.2 million, compared to several hundred thousand dollars in more stable periods, he added.

There’s more demand than available aircraft from Ho Chi Minh City, but Rosen said EFL is talking with airlines about moving in some capacity and expects authorities to loosen up on landing rights in the next couple of weeks.

Getting charters to Vietnam isn’t easy because many are deployed to China and other major markets, Imbriani added.

EFL is urging customers to quickly provide order forecasts through the end of the year so it can secure blocks of cargo space at contract rates before it disappears and the only recourse is paying market rates for immediate delivery.

“Most of my major customers have made significant commitments through the end of the year already,” Rosen said.

New York-based forwarder Wen-Parker Logistics sometimes trucks freight from northern Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City because the airfreight rate is almost $1 cheaper than in Hanoi, said Bryan Borycki, executive vice president of global business development, in an email.

COVID is also affecting Cambodia, which is complicating land-air shipments via Saigon and Bangkok. The rate from Thailand’s capital has more than doubled from pre-pandemic norms to more than $10 per kilogram, Rosen added.

Why This Matters

The problem facing many retailers is that Vietnam is the source for a great deal of winter outerwear that can’t be easily substituted with production from another country the way a T-shirt might be. And data from Panjiva, the supply chain research unit of Standard & Poor’s Global Market Intelligence, revealed two of Nike’s Vietnamese sneaker suppliers shut down production in July due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Bob Imbriani, executive vice president of international for Texas-based freight forwarder Team Worldwide, said he is seeing more requests, too, to secure air capacity out of Vietnam because exorbitant ocean rates and fees have narrowed the normal price gap with air.

Manufacturing plants in the production areas of Ho Chi Minh City and nearby Binh Duong and Dong Nai are having trouble coping with lockdown exemptions, and strict health protocols are limiting the availability of truckers and dockworkers, according to logistics companies and supply chain analysts monitoring the situation.

The U.S. began sourcing more from Vietnam in recent years when many manufacturers moved production there because of rising U.S. tariffs on Chinese products and increased labor costs in China.

Top U.S. imports from Vietnam include:

  • apparel and footwear
  • furniture
  • electric machinery and equipment
  • leather goods

Nineteen provinces are in some form of lockdown, with infections numbering about 3,000 per day. Health authorities in Ho Chi Minh City have extended restrictions, which include curfews and a ban on most public transport, through Sept. 15, according to multiple reports.

Many factories have halted production this month because of difficulty complying with two regulations aimed at ensuring social distancing for workers. The “3-in-1 spot” rule requires production facilities to make accommodations so employees can work, eat and sleep in one location to limit commuting. Under the “1-route, 2-locations” rule, employers must transport workers from the plant to a communal residence, such as a hotel or dormitory, for rest.

Last Friday, 90 CEOs of leading U.S. brands such as Adidas, Coach, Gap, Hanesbrands (NYSE: HBI), Nike (NYSE: NKE), VF (NYSE: VFC) and Under Armour (NYSE: UAA) signed a joint letter petitioning President Joe Biden to accelerate vaccine aid to Vietnam. They argued that quickly restoring Vietnam’s industrial sector will minimize supply chain problems for apparel companies that employ 3 million people in the U.S.

Eric is the Air Cargo Market Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at

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