If the amount of cargo is not evenly distributed across a network a freighter will sometimes have to fly a route not loaded to capacity. Do cargo freighters ever have to be ferried empty to alleviate this "back-haul problem"? The link uses the example of trucking, but my question is to what extent this issue manifests itself in scheduled air cargo (e.g. FedEx, UPS, etc.).

(Note: My assumption is that this affects scheduled air cargo operators more severely than specialty cargo operators doing "one-off" hauling of special goods)

  • $\begingroup$ If a plane cannot carry everything to be hauled, and delivery is guaranteed overnight, then a 2nd plane would have to brought in to handle the excess.This probably only impacts the big boys, like Fedex, UPS, DHL. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Feb 6, 2019 at 0:30
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    $\begingroup$ I'd expect it to be the other way round: specialty operators spend far more time flying empty than scheduled services. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Feb 6, 2019 at 8:02

1 Answer 1


Cargo airplanes are ferried empty in some situations, sure. Maintenance is a common reason, or one leg of charter cargo flights. It's pretty rare in scheduled cargo flights as it would mean there's not a single package going that direction, there's almost always something to take.

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    $\begingroup$ If FedEx has to get a plane from IND to MEM to get an extra load out of MEM to its destination, there will surely be packages at IND that are ready to go. Some may be next day that have already arrived, some may be 2-3 day that can go ahead and go now... I'd be willing to bet that unless it's a serious maintenance issue, the general package carriers never fly empty. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Feb 6, 2019 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD - Do you happen to have a source for how frequently this happens? I figured that it would happen along the lines as you describe, but I was hoping for some anecdotal or documented frequency (e.g. 0.3% of flights are maintenance/ferry flights) $\endgroup$
    – nodapic
    Feb 7, 2019 at 2:10
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    $\begingroup$ I would expect that many of the planes transporting things like phones from China to the US would return empty or nearly so. You can also buy things from China on Amazon and the post office delvers them in a few days for next to nothing. The return postage is exorbitant. Do you have any insight into those operations? $\endgroup$
    – JScarry
    Feb 7, 2019 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ I have no info on US-China cargo operations, my knowledge on cargo comes from a couple of EU cargo pilot friends. They do regular routes, but also special one-way operations like delivering tires for formula 1, horses and dogs to races. It's rare they go out and back, usually they will have some sort of cargo on another leg. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Feb 8, 2019 at 8:43
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD Best view of NYC ever. It was like a tourist flight in a DC-10. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Feb 13, 2019 at 18:26

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