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Snakes on a Plane (for Real!) And Other Things I Learned at Delta’s Cargo Hub

April 09, 2019
12 min read
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We may well be living in the golden age of air travel. Business class suites with sliding doors, onboard showers in first class cabins, self-serve bars on regional jets and memory foam seat cushions in (gasp!) economy. As important as those things are, they represent just a subsection of an aircraft. In airline parlance, this is all “above wing.”

Below the wing? That’s cargo, which travels in the holds and makes lots of money for airlines.

At Delta, that's Delta Cargo, a buzzing division of Delta Air Lines that goes largely unnoticed by everyday passengers, but would be missed immediately if it ceased to exist. I recently toured Delta Cargo's largest station at its headquarters in Atlanta to find out more about this growing operation. It's equal parts mysterious and sophisticated, and below, I'll provide a behind the scenes look at what's ahead.

What is Delta Cargo?

Delta makes a lot of money selling seats to passengers. It also makes hundreds of millions of dollars annually — $865 million in 2018, a 16% jump from 2017 — by selling the space beneath your feet. Companies all around the world stay in business by delivering wares from one place to another, and while you may think of FedEx, UPS and DHL as the usual suspects, the major US carriers are in the same business.

If you’ve ever flown on a commercial jet, you’ve likely seen baggage handlers loading the lower half of a plane with luggage. After passenger bags are accounted for, there’s typically quite a bit of empty space remaining. That section of the aircraft isn’t suitable for humans, but it’s perfect for artwork, medicine and your latest Amazon impulse buy. Put simply, Delta sells that unused cargo space to everyday people, businesses and even other logistics companies, loading (almost) anything you’d put on a UPS jet mere inches from passengers.

I say almost because there are certain things Delta won't fly. Robert Whittinham, General Manager for Atlanta Cargo Operations, told me Delta has more stringent guidelines than typical shipping companies. For example, Delta is way more cautious about shipping batteries, chemicals and weapons than some other cargo-only competitors, only accepting them under certain restrictions. "We're unique in that we have passengers on board," said Whittinham, "and the safety of those passengers is paramount."

A Day in The Life: Cargo Edition

A piece of cargo — which can be anything from a magazine to a generator to a human organ needed for transplant — is packaged up and prepped for shipment by the sender. But then, rather than delivering it to a UPS Store, it’s delivered to an airport. Surprisingly, customers can create shipping labels and receive confirmed delivery times from Delta just as you’d expect from a dedicated shipping company.

From there, the shipment enters a warehouse where it's scanned and inspected. Drug-sniffing dogs and specially-trained personnel are on hand to make sure nothing illicit makes it into the belly of a Delta plane.

Then, the real magic begins. Depending on the type of shipping that was purchased — essentially, how urgently you need a package moved — Delta Cargo personnel begin staging products to catch the next flight. There's a "build-up" station where items as small as an envelope and as large as a piano are bundled together, wrapped in plastic and placed on a Unit Load Device (ULD).

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At the same time, a team of dot connectors are canvassing weather around the globe and looking at upcoming flights. Once a flight is identified for a potential shipment, a dizzying amount of automatic calculations occur. Once passengers have finished checking in luggage in for a flight, the total weight of that checked-in luggage is shared with Delta Cargo. Whatever space is left over can be used for cargo purposes. This varies from aircraft to aircraft and airport to airport, with factors such as forecast temperatures and runway altitudes coming into play.

As passengers begin to board up top, Delta personnel leap into action down below. Once passenger luggage is accounted for, Delta Cargo shipments are loaded in based on priority. Some high-value shipments are watched by guards until the very second that the cargo hold is closed. Shipments with temperature sensitivities — flowers, produce, pharmaceuticals, etc. — are held in warehouse-sized refrigerators until the very last moment, and are likely being loaded as you're watching Delta's newest safety video up top.

Finally, any live animals checked in for transport are loaded on just prior to pushback, which is critical given the limited oxygen in the cargo hold and the stress that they may experience from being in such a foreign environment.

As you're loading your carry-on into an overhead bin during the 20 to 45 minutes usually allocated for passenger boarding, anything from gold bricks to live kangaroos are being neatly tucked away below.

A Different Kind of Customer

Rafael Figueroa, Delta's Managing Director of Cargo Operations and Customer Experience (left) with TPG's Darren Murph

I asked why an individual or business would opt to ship with Delta over a brand more synonymous with delivery. “Urgency, a white-glove approach and enhanced security. The world of cargo is speed, and we sell time,” replied Rafael Figueroa, Managing Director of Cargo Operations and Customer Experience.

That is to say, what distinguishes Delta and other commercial airlines as shipping companies is the frequency of their routes. While UPS or FedEx may take a few trips each day from Seattle to Atlanta, for example, Delta routes connect those two cities many times each day.

For cargo such as human hearts, cancer vaccines and replacement parts used in million-dollar manufacturing plants, that speed is vital.

Atlanta is the world's busiest airport, with over 1,000 daily Delta departures to 225 destinations, which enables Delta to accept high-profile DASH shipments just 60 minutes prior to a scheduled flight departure. For customers where next-day shipping isn't fast enough, that's where Delta Cargo shines.

DASH shipments range from $83 (between 1 and 10 pounds when shipped in the lower 48 US states) to $214 (between 71 and 100 pounds). American Airline's rough equivalent is about 20% more expensive, while United does not publish its cargo rates. While rates vary wildly depending on origin, destination, added services such as GPS tracking and weight, you can bank on paying at least $0.77 per pound with a $60 minimum for less urgent domestic shipments. International shipments have higher minimums ($125+) and can cost as little as $4.10 per kilogram from BOS/IAD/JFK to Shanghai or as much as $30.50 per kilogram to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

The one notable hurdle about everyday customers using a commercial airline to ship is the registration process. While anything under 16 ounces can be dropped off and shipped sans fuss, you'll need to be viewed as a Known Shipper by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for anything heftier. Think of it as the shipping equivalent to TSA PreCheck. Even small businesses can apply, and airlines are prepped to guide prospective shippers through the application process.

Snakes on a Plane. Seriously.

If you've flown long enough, chances are you have indeed flown with snakes on a plane. In speaking with various members of the Delta Cargo team, I learned that the following things have tagged along on passenger flights: prototype vehicles, human organs, human remains and all sorts of zoo animals (kangaroos, live snakes and even chickens). Leading into Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, airlines' cooling facilities are jammed floor to ceiling with fresh flowers.

Delta's specialized approach enables it to carry cargo that wouldn't be trusted with a common carrier. A few years back, for example, Delta Cargo was responsible for flying a primate from one coast in a bid to prevent its species' extinction thanks to mating with another primate.

Delta Cargo also goes above and beyond in the world of pet transit. Each day, it monitors temperatures at each of its hubs. If it sees that temperatures will be above 80 degrees or below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it'll either reroute a pet or politely decline to accept the pet for travel. Both of those figures are more stringent than what is required, but the company errs on the conservative side to safeguard itself from instances of pets perishing in the cargo hold.

During a recent hurricane, Delta received a plea from an animal shelter directly in the storm's path for help rescuing its animals. Delta Cargo calculated what types of wide-body aircraft needed to be sent in order to give 50 dogs enough oxygen to survive the rescue flight.

In fact, Delta ranked as the number one airline for pet travel in a reader survey conducted by TPG and Earlier this year, Delta Cargo entered into an exclusive long-term partnership with CarePod, which will give the airline and pet owners real-time updates as their furry family members make their way from one locale to the next.

Passenger Parallels

Delta's Operations Customer Center (OCC), which I toured last year, is essential to maintaining the company's sterling on-time performance rating for passenger travel. In the world of cargo, there's the Cargo Control Center. This facility is responsible for keeping tabs on Delta's 17,000 ULDs (the containers and pallets that cargo is shipped on), tracking down any shipments that go missing due to damaged labels or other mishaps, rerouting cargo in the event of poor weather and maximizing every square inch of cargo space.

Just as Delta has boosted its net promoter score by improving its on-time passenger performance, Delta Cargo relies on its Cargo Control Center to maximize space and minimize the time cargo spends sitting versus flying. While I was there, teams were abuzz trying to reroute 1,100 pounds of USPS mail that had missed their intended connection at Bradley International Airport (BDL). Delta Cargo handles around half a million pounds of USPS mail each day — more than any other US airline — and is sensitive to any hiccup affecting its largest customer.

On the tracking side, Delta Cargo is inching closer to a fully traceable operation. While RFID luggage tagging has been a staple of Delta's passenger operations, adding Bluetooth modules (shown above) to its 17,000 containers and pallets soon will provide a similar edge to Delta Cargo. The company has around 12,000 tagged to date, and is working with its digital innovation teams to provide real-time web-based cargo tracking down to the pallet level.

Fret not, delayed passengers, your parts are on the way

Delta also leans on its own aircraft to get parts to other planes that need it. If you've ever heard your captain announce a dreaded mechanical delay, only to hear that the necessary parts "are being flown in," you have Delta Cargo to thank. During my tour, I learned that Delta is looking to insource even more, including shipping its own meals rather than relying on third-party vendors. Per Figueroa, this is expected to not only lower costs, but also boost quality.

Looking Ahead at What's Below

With some 1,700 employees globally, Delta Cargo contributes roughly 3% of Delta Air Lines’ total revenue. While that's small from a percentage standpoint, there's plenty of room to grow. Delta is looking to push more into premium products, differentiating itself from shipping companies by offering high-end services that UPS and FedEx may not. In a sense, it's hoping to sell peace of mind alongside brisk transit options.

For items like precious metals, antiques and collectibles, it's not far-fetched to imagine a world where everyday consumers consider a commercial airline to serve their shipping needs. Even now, you can drop an urgent package weighing 16 ounces or less at a Delta counter in the United States and have it shipped airport-to-airport for same-day delivery. While Delta doesn't handle last-mile services to homes and businesses just yet (at least for consumers), it's a concept that's within the realm of feasibility.

As for using your SkyMiles to pay for shipments? That's not on the current road map, but given Delta's progressive approach to providing more ways to burn miles, we wouldn't be entirely shocked if it happened.

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All photos by the author.