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ANA Holdings Inc. expects its cargo unit to receive a boost this year from the global chip shortage as planes loaded with semiconductors help accelerate deliveries to automakers and consumer-electronics manufacturers.

"Supply chains are scrambling for automotive chips, that’s where air cargo can play a role,” Toshiaki Toyama, the chief executive officer of ANA Cargo, said in an interview Wednesday. Congestion at sea ports, along with severe winter weather, is also forcing companies to rely more on air freight, propping up carriers’ deteriorating profits, he said.

"Marine transportation has been very tight since last fall due to the coronavirus, so air cargo is overflowing,” Toyama said.

Cargo has emerged as one bright spot for airlines, weathering their worst-ever period as the coronavirus pandemic halts passenger travel. With many people around the world stuck at home for the best part of 2020, there was a boom in online shopping and e-commerce surged, pushing air-freight rates higher. At the start of the year, carriers were also busy flying masks and personal protective equipment to countries.

Air cargo volumes returned to pre-coronavirus levels in January, figures from the International Air Transport Association show, although emerging markets reported weaker export demand amid additional virus outbreaks.

ANA isn’t a large player in cargo, ranking 12th globally in 2019 by scheduled metric tons. In normal times, the biggest cargo operators in Asia are Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. and Korean Air Lines Co., but even they pale beside giants like FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc.

The Japanese carrier is aiming to reach the top five within a few years by focusing on freight with higher unit prices, such as precision machinery, Toyama said. At this point, ANA doesn’t plan on buying any more cargo aircraft, rather it will try to maximize the efficiency of its existing fleet.

Revenue for ANA’s international cargo unit for the third quarter ended Dec. 31 jumped 88% from a year earlier to ¥51 billion. In January, ANA and rival Japan Airlines Co. boosted international cargo operations to meet growing demand for semiconductors and medical supplies.

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