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UPDATED 5.8.24 to reflect additional information from CBP

The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency’s decision to boost compliance in ecommerce imports, which appears to have impacted ecommerce shipments coming from mainland China on freighters – is leading to airport congestion, delays and the cancellation or suspension of some flights, according to sources. 

“All freighters coming into LAX from mainland China, many of which are Shein and Temu, are going straight to Customs warehouses for full inspection,” said one source at LAX. 

“And CBP is finding a lot of illegal stuff. There is fentanyl, drug-making equipment and misdeclarations of value to meet the de minimis threshold.” 

The source added: “The US is finally cracking down on every shipment, and this is slowing things down a lot. The customs warehouse is packed full, and it’s causing a huge backlog of ecommerce.” 

With estimates of 100 freighters a day carrying ecommerce into the US, perhaps 100 tons on each – there is a significant amount of cargo to check. 

“The past few months have all been about new carriers coming in with more ecommerce,” said a source. “But we are now seeing these services suspended. We were, for example, expecting a five-times-a-week flight into Chicago, and that is on hold now.” 

Another planned high-frequency flight into New York is also thought to have been paused. 

One large forwarder confirmed that CBP are checking documentation and cargo descriptions “very closely”.

“It’s a sign that US Customs is trying to make it more difficult.”

CBP told The Loadstar that it had been running two pilots aimed at increasing the advanced electronic data provided for ecommerce. “The Entry Type 86 test and Section 321 data pilot have shown that the additional data elements enable CBP to better identify shipments that violate US customs and trade laws.”

One source named several freighter operators that were suspending flights, but there seemed to be fewer problems on shipments from Hong Kong than mainland China.

A charter broker commented that the market was “really nervous”. Indeed, no one in the US air cargo industry wanted to go on the record – and the source said his Chinese customers were especially worried. 

He said: “Temu has got a lot of capacity booked until the end of the year, and they’re starting to get very nervous about that.” 

He added: “I’ve just received a note from our Chinese government guy that says ‘let us use an old Chinese saying. let the arrow fly a little, then we will know what happened’. They are really nervous, and just waiting to see what happens.” 

At least one Chinese mainland carrier is thought to have halted freighters temporarily, to ensure that all shipments were fully checked at origin before going to the US, according to one source. Another said carriers such as CMA CGM Air Cargo, which was planning to begin flights from China to the US, would likely have to pause the launch slated for June. CMA CGM was approached for comment. 

But sources said the US was unlikely to stop checking shipments any time soon, particularly following the discovery of fentanyl and drug-making equipment. Tighter security on the Mexican border has led drug smugglers to identify other routes – and air cargo is now one of them.  

US Airforwarders Association executive director Brandon Fried told The Loadstar last month that the government’s focus on preventing the import of illegal drugs, or their chemical parts, could lead to 100% screening of all inbound shipments.

He urged the government to find another method, warning that more screening would cause delays and congestion. 

One ecommerce source said this was the real question for US air logistics now.  

“Will [these illegal shipments] lead to additional screening measures for all inbound cargo? That is a good question.” 

Fentanyl caused the death of 200 Americans every day in 2022 and over a quarter of a million have died from a fentanyl overdose since 2018. Fentanyl-type drugs reportedly caused the death of 100,000 Americans last year alone. 

Check out The Loadstar’s ecommerce series, explaining the potential threats to air cargo, here.

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