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Cargo-in-cabin innovation remains popular for some airlines

Emirates, KLM among carriers loading shipments on seats

Airlines switched part of their fleet to cargo operations during the pandemic and some removed seats to make more space. (Photo: Emirates)

Passenger aircraft dedicated purely to cargo operations have played an important role during the pandemic in delivering critical humanitarian and commercial supplies, as well as generating revenue for cash-strapped airlines when travel plummeted.

Most airlines used the bottom half of airplanes for cargo, where it normally shares space with baggage, but some added extra capacity by storing light shipments in the passenger cabin and even removing seats to allow for full floor loading.

The economics of flying an aircraft with a payload less than half of a pure freighter carrying heavy containers on the main deck aren’t great, but work when cargo rates are very high and fuel prices are moderate. Putting cargo in overhead bins, seats and other cabin areas allows airlines to carry more goods per flight, but it also is very labor intensive because boxes have to be handloaded through narrow doors and carefully placed to minimize damage to interior features.

With airfreight rates several times higher than normal and tight capacity forecast for the remainder of the year, some airlines are continuing with the cargo-in-cabin model.

Emirates has operated more than 3,100 flights with cargo on seats and in overhead bins of  Boeing 777-300 aircraft, transporting more than 11,000 metric tons over the past year through early May, it said in a news release. That’s equivalent to more than 800,000 seats with cargo. 

Face masks and other personal protective equipment were the most common cargo transported. Other general cargo including garments and clothing, dry food, dental supplies and sporting goods have also been transported on seats. They fit the profile for cabin cargo because they are light.  

Emirates SkyCargo, the cargo division of the Dubai-based airline, said demand remains high for transport of medical gear and other cargo inside the cabin.

The carrier also removed economy seats from 14 B777s to increase cabin utilization.

Cabin loading requires approval from national aviation authorities. Ground crews must also be trained on the most efficient and safe way to load and secure cargo inside passenger cabins. Airlines and aviation authorities set the maximum weight and dimensions of individual packages, as well as the types of cargo that are permitted inside the cabin, and have extra fire-safety procedures.

Emirates, for example, requires all perishable cargo packaging for loading on seats and bins to include an adequate internal absorbent layer. It also developed an application that allowed cargo handlers to calculate optimal loading capacity inside the cabin.

Airlines that continue to use the cabin for auxiliary cargo space include Air Canada (OTCUS: AC), Asiana, Cathay Pacific and Korean Air. 

Airlines are also using special covers, or seat bags, to prevent accidental damage to the interior of aircraft, such as seatback entertainment screens.

KLM Cargo

Dutch airline KLM recently began utilizing custom-made seat bags from Trip & Co. in 777s to increase efficiency and protection. The seat bags, which were approved by the Dutch Civil Aviation Authority, were first deployed on a flight last month that carried about 950 boxes of medical supplies and COVID-19 test kits from Shanghai to Amsterdam.

The pouches double capacity on the seats, prevent physical strain during handling and prevent plastic waste. KLM initially secured medical relief goods on seats with plastic sheeting and straps, which only permitted loading of one box per seat.

KLM’s cargo seat bags come in three versions: single, double and triple seat. They can also be used on Boeing 787-10 and Airbus A330-200 aircraft.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]