Passenger seats make room for cargo space as shortage persists

With a global shortage of air cargo space and extraordinary demand to move emergency medical supplies, some overseas passenger airlines are taking out the seats on aircraft to make more room for freight.

And U.S. airlines are asking the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for permission to fly cargo in the main deck where passengers normally sit, including the option of removing seats, an industry source familiar with the regulatory situation said.

A decision on basic main-deck loading is expected very soon. FAA sign-off for more complex modifications could take a couple weeks longer, the person said, adding “the exact framework for seat loading under U.S. regulations is not yet fully elaborated.”

Almost every domestic airline is interested in using the cabin for cargo in some form, according to the source.

FAA decision coming soon

FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer deflected inquiries about whether it has received such requests. “We cannot speculate on what the agency might do,” he said.

“We are actively working with the FAA on in-cabin cargo carriage. At this time we are only flying cargo in the lower deck,” American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL) spokeswoman Laura Bassel confirmed.

Delta Air Lines is also working with the FAA to safely carry cargo in the passenger area, spokeswoman Martha Whitt said.

United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) spokeswoman Rachael Rivas offered the following statement: “At this time, United is carrying shipments only in the cargo hold of our cargo-only flights. We’re adjusting our capacity to meet customer demand by increasing the frequency of our flights between certain markets.”

United is operating, on average 20 cargo-only flights per day between its six U.S. hubs and cities around the world.

Meanwhile, Air Canada (OTC US: ACDVF) announced that it is modifying three Boeing 777-300 extended-range aircraft — the largest in its fleet — to transport cargo in the passenger cabin. Last week, Lufthansa Airlines said it will remove seats from four aircraft to make room for more cargo.

Safety first

The new operational configurations require certification by civil aviation authorities who examine structural loads and what mechanisms are employed to secure the cargo.

The decision to turn the airplanes into double-deck freighters underscores the global shortage of air cargo space and the pressure on airlines to find revenue anywhere possible after the coronavirus halted nearly all travel and forced carriers to ground most of their fleets. A month ago, many passenger airlines began offering their aircraft to cargo customers on a charter basis. Then some international carriers began flying cargo-only routes on regular schedules, while others utilized cabin space by putting light boxes in the seats.

The fact that airlines are taking the next step and spending money to remove seats also reflects sky-high airfreight rates that airlines can command and the fact that passenger traffic won’t return to pre-coronavirus levels anytime soon.

Soaring airfreight rates

Airfreight rates have tripled or quadrupled since early March from China to the U.S. and are up sharply in recent weeks from Asia to Europe. Trans-Atlantic rates have also skyrocketed. And if you want to book an entire freighter to move goods in the trans-Pacific, it will cost you about $1.1 million, according to air cargo professionals.

The reconfigured Air Canada aircraft can carry 89.6 tons, the equivalent of up to 9 million medical masks. The conversion doubles capacity by cubic meters but not tonnage, Tim Strauss, vice president of cargo, said in an email.

“If it was a full freighter, it would likely triple the cube. What it does do is make this even more effective for emergency and medical supplies,” he said.

Quick adaptation

Air Canada said the 777-300s are being converted by Avianor, an aircraft maintenance and cabin integration specialist based in Montreal. Avianor engineered a way to remove the 422 passenger seats and designate cargo loading zones for lightweight boxes restrained with cargo nets. The modification was developed, produced and implemented within six days.

The first aircraft conversion is complete and is now in service, with the second and third aircraft to be completed in a few days, Air Canada said.

“The rapid transformation of some of our aircraft to meet cargo demand reflects our ability to maximize our fleet assets quickly when these aircraft would otherwise be parked. Air Canada’s engineering team worked around the clock to oversee the conversion work, and with Transport Canada to ensure all work was certified as tasks were completed,” said Richard Steer, senior vice president of operations, in a statement.

Air Canada has operated 40 all-cargo flights since March 22 and plans to operate up to 20 all-cargo flights per week using the three newly converted Boeing 777s, plus Boeing 787 and  777 passenger planes. It also still operates scheduled passenger flights to London, Paris, Frankfurt and Hong Kong, which offer belly space for cargo. Much of Air Canada Cargo’s activity has involved moving medical supplies from Asia and Europe to Canada, but the company said it is exploring additional opportunities in other regions, too.

Seat bags

Some airlines are using “seat bags” to maximize the efficiency of passenger aircraft being deployed as full-time freighters. The seat bags allow airlines to use more space for cargo without having to make costly modifications.

Early this month, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it would speed up applications for supplemental certificates to temporarily modify passenger cabins with cargo seat bags, which typically are installed onto passenger seats in the evening to carry cargo overnight and are then removed in the morning to allow the cabin to be used for passengers again.

Approved stowage areas for cargo within a passenger cabin are under the seat, in the overhead bins and other designated storage areas provided the weight of each box does not exceed the approved weights of each area, Glyn Hughes, global head of cargo at the International Air Transport Association, told FreightWaves.

EASA can provide certifications as a minor modification when a carrier wishes to transport medical supplies directly on a passenger seat. For more regular use of seats to carry cargo, including the use of “cargo seat bags,” a major change or supplemental type of certification is required. Fire safety is a major consideration because seat bags allow more dense loading of cargo.

LATAM Airlines, based in Santiago, Chile, has been using seat containers for certain flights, including from Santiago to Easter Island and Santiago to Miami, spokeswoman Maria Teresa Escobar said.

In related news, Swiss International Airlines plans this month to operate 10 cargo-only flights with Airbus A340 passenger airplanes carrying personal protective equipment from China to Zurich with cargo in the hold and the cabin. Swiss WorldCargo offers cargo-only flights with empty passenger aircraft either as a full charter or as a partial load, where space is sold as usual.

Ethiopian Airlines also announced last week it is carrying medical supplies in both scheduled and charter flights using the cabin and belly hold of passenger aircraft, in addition to its cargo fleet.