Passenger Airplanes Serve Vital Cargo Links During Pandemic

 - April 15, 2020, 4:05 PM
Air Canada has finished removing the seats from two of three Boeing 777-300s specifically to fly medical supplies from China. (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons (BY) by Olivier CABARET)

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.


Even as airline passenger traffic falls to a small fraction of its 2019 levels due to the Covid-19 pandemic, air cargo transport remains vital to keeping the world’s economic engine from completely stalling. In fact, air freight demand has hardly fallen with the need for coronavirus-related supplies such as medical equipment and food shipments to places where processing plant closures have created a shortage, for example. So, while the majority of passenger airplanes sit grounded amid travel restrictions and the resulting collapse in travel demand, there remains a need for the cargo capacity that normally resides in the bellies of those machines.

As a result, airlines have turned to flying cargo missions with passenger airplanes that would otherwise sit grounded, raising some regulatory questions groups such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have had to address. While speaking with AIN from Geneva on Wednesday, IATA global head of cargo Glyn Hughes explained that operators most often still carry cargo exclusively in the bellies of their airplanes, in which case they may fly under the airplane's original type certification. But as operators look to carry cargo in passenger cabins, other regulatory and safety considerations come into play, ranging from the need for simple risk assessments to major type certifications. 

For example, to carry packages in overhead compartments, under seats, and approved areas in the galleys, operators primarily need to consider the weight allowed in each approved space. Items under each seat cannot exceed nine kilograms and those in each overhead 12 kilograms. “The decision for a carrier to place its passenger fleet—or some of it—available for cargo utilization is very easy in that first part because it doesn’t require any additional certifications,” said Hughes. “It just requires communication to the marketplace that the airplane is available for charters or working with humanitarian agencies or health organizations, et cetera as they are helping to move medical equipment around the world. We still recommend that carriers undertake a safety risk assessment because it is still quite unique.”

In the second scenario, in which a carrier might want to transport medical supplies on the airplane’s passenger seats, it would need a minor certification amendment, the process for which Hughes described as relatively quick.

However, in cases in which an operator wants to transport general cargo on passenger seats or in special bags contoured to fit on the seat, it would require a higher level of certification, one that requires proof of proper restraint procedures, loading procedures, and fire assessments because the passenger cabin generally carries no fire detection. “So you need to have a minimum number of crew on board to monitor the cargo and be trained in firefighting techniques, et cetera; the cargo couldn’t be loaded above the seat height,” explained Hughes. “So it's quite a process to go through to get that type certification.”

Finally, in cases where an operator wants to remove seats to fill the cabin with cargo, it would need a major type certification approval because of considerations such as the structural load of the floor and the need to install special rails to secure the cargo, explained Hughes. “If you had approval to use the seats, you were actually securing the cargo to the seats, which have been secured to the floor,” he explained. “[If] you take the seats away, you then need to introduce a whole new securing mechanism.”

Air Canada has already completed the seat removal process in two of three Boeing 777-300s for which it has applied to Transport Canada specifically for certification to carry medical supplies and equipment from China. The airline, which from March 22 to April 11 operated 40 all-cargo flights, plans to fly up to 20 all-cargo missions per week using passenger Boeing 777s and 787s.

“As we progress through this current crisis, I think more and more carriers will evaluate the use of their grounded fleets in a cargo environment for many reasons,” said Hughes. “One, because, of course, it's a way of generating cash, which is quite difficult in these times. Two, an aircraft is designed to be flown. No airplane likes to sit on the tarmac, so an airplane in the sky is a happy aircraft. There's a huge demand right now in all parts of the world for moving, not just medical aid but also moving food, supporting people in lockdown, and social isolation.”

Some 300 passenger airplanes now operate around the world in purely cargo roles, most using the type approval that came with the aircraft. American Airlines, for one, flew its first all-cargo flight since 1984 with a Boeing 777-300ER out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on March 20. Just this week Delta Air Lines said it planned to increase its cargo-only flights between the U.S. and Asia, expanding daily service from Detroit begun on March 30 with the addition of flights from Los Angeles to and from Shanghai, with a stop in Incheon, South Korea.

Hughes said he sees the trend continuing over at least the next four to six weeks.

“When you consider the maritime supply chains from Asia to North America can take 45 to 50 days [and] Asia to Europe can take up to 60 days, we would anticipate that until the ocean supply chains can be up and running, that there will still be quite an increased demand for air cargo,” explained Hughes. “And as restart takes place and as society starts to reopen and economies start to turn back on the engines as it were, you will still see further demand for air cargo to support that process.”