U.S. Joining Global Push Allowing Cargo Shipments in Passenger Jet Cabins

Date: Friday, April 17, 2020
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Regulators seek to smooth the flow of critical medical supplies to fight the coronavirus pandemic

U.S. air-safety regulators, seeking to make it easier for airlines to ramp up transportation of cargo aimed at combating the pandemic, are poised to allow such shipments in the cabins of passenger planes, according to people familiar with the issue.

The new guidance is slated to be issued in the coming days, they said, and is expected to resemble earlier moves by carriers and foreign aviation authorities from Canada to Ethiopia and the Middle East.

Normally, operating restrictions and aircraft structural limits mean passenger jets must put all cargo in the bellies of aircraft. But in consultation with plane makers and airlines, Federal Aviation Administration officials are ready to lift those restrictions in order to give U.S. airlines greater flexibility to satisfy swiftly changing shipping demand around the world.

On Saturday, Air Canada said it was reconfiguring three of its Boeing Co. 777 passenger airliners into all-cargo jets aimed at transporting vital medical supplies and other time-sensitive items. By removing seats, the airline said it can double the aircraft’s original cargo capacity.

Air Canada also said it plans to fly 20 all-cargo flights a week, including the converted 777s, to Paris, London, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Airlines slashed passenger flights and many of them essentially grounded their entire fleets in the face of the collapsing travel demand. Now amid pandemic lockdowns—reducing overall air traffic by some 60% globally— carriers are seeking ways to boost their cargo capabilities to compensate for some of the lost revenue.

American Airlines Group Inc., United Airlines Holdings Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co.are among the U.S. carriers that have started operating cargo-only flights in recent weeks, with the freight stowed in the bellies of aircraft below the passenger cabins.

Internationally, flydubai and Ethiopian Airlines also have indicated they are moving toward reconfiguring passenger cabins to haul cargo.

Some of the moves are coming because sharply reduced availability of cargo space on passenger flights has disrupted shipments of fruits, vegetables and other foodstuffs.

One result of the effort to shift the idled passenger planes to cargo operations is a data-gathering partnership announced last week that is designed to help airline executives, shippers and air-traffic control entities identify and better analyze shifting demand. The initiative pairs Aireon LLC, a provider of satellite-based aircraft surveillance information, with the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, a Netherlands-based association representing air-traffic control organizations world-wide.

Despite the indefinite grounding of some large passenger fleets, the Canso-Aireon partnership estimated that as of last week roughly 22% of commercial aircraft were still flying globally compared with typical pre-pandemic traffic levels. The totals didn’t break out cargo flights.

 

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