Logistics and aviation companies are proving extremely resourceful developing ways to add cargo capacity to an air transport system experiencing severe bottlenecks due to the shortage of freight-capable aircraft.
On Thursday, Germany logistics group DB Schenker announced it has created a virtual airline in partnership with Icelandair to shuttle medical supplies to Europe and the U.S. on passenger planes with seats removed. And giant aircraft manufacturer Airbus said it also has developed a system to maximize cabin space for cargo.
Schenker, the contract logistics and forwarding arm of German railroad operator Deutsche Bahn, said it has chartered three Boeing 767 passenger jets from Icelandair to operate daily flights from Shanghai to Munich with medical equipment for importers involved in subduing the COVID-19 outbreak. The China shuttle will be able to deliver personal protective equipment, such as surgical gowns, within five to seven days of booking.
Once fully operational, DB Schenker’s private airline will perform 45 initial shuttle flights in 12 rotations per week. DB Schenker, the third-largest global logistics provider by gross revenue, said it will expand the charter operation beyond the initial number of flights and is planning a twice-weekly service to Chicago too.
Passenger airlines began turning their jets into freighter aircraft in mid-March to help shippers, who heavily rely on the bellies of passenger planes to move goods, who struggled to find capacity when the coronavirus forced airlines to ground their fleets and full-size freighters became scarce. Demand for air transport is heightened by the urgent need to speed shipments of medical supplies to hospitals and essential workers on the front lines of the crisis. Airlines have welcomed the opportunity to put planes to use that otherwise would sit in storage, renting aircraft ad hoc and then creating scheduled, fixed-route services. Many are making extra effort to utilize the cabin space, placing boxes in stowage compartments and seats, and, in what has become a growing trend, actually removing the seats.
The DB Schenker-Icelandair partnership is one of the more extensive and sustained dedicated charter operations involving passenger aircraft to date. In just three days, Icelandair pulled the passenger seats, galleys and bathrooms from the three widebody aircraft, which include the DB Schenker logo. With the seats removed, the planes will have more than 200 cubic meters of total cargo space.
Retrofitting passenger cabins requires approval from national aviation authorities. U.S. airlines have asked the Federal Aviation Administration to permit cargo in passenger seats.
A video of the aircraft conversion and shuttle operation can be viewed here.
DB Schenker is already working on the relief effort with automaker Porsche and Lufthansa Cargo. Porsche is using its manufacturing presence in China and international supply chain expertise to procure protective masks, goggles and suits, and coordinate logistics on behalf of two German states. Since April 9, up to six Lufthansa aircraft per week arrive at Frankfurt and Munich airports, where the goods are loaded onto trucks and transported to a DB Schenker intermediate warehouse at Stuttgart Airport. The governments of Saxony and Baden-Württemberg then take over distribution of the protective equipment to hospitals, emergency services and other institutions.
DB Schenker estimates that by the end of May, the value of the equipment imports will be in the hundreds of millions of euros.
Airbus cabin pallet
Meanwhile, European aircraft manufacturer Airbus said it has developed a modification for A330 and A350 aircraft which will enable airlines to install freight pallets directly into seat tracks on the cabin floor, after removal of the economy-class seats.
The use of palletized freight in the cabin is easier and quicker than loading and unloading individual boxes, and reduces wear and tear on the seats themselves. Other benefits, according to Airbus, include greater fire protection and the 9g load restraint capability to prevent cargo from shifting in flight.
Getting boxes and mail pouches in and out of passenger cabins typically requires an assembly line of workers. DB Schenker, as the video shows, also slid a conveyor belt down the aisle to increase efficiency.
Airbus said it will manage the process for obtaining the necessary certification for the cabin pallets from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.
Airline industry officials say putting cargo in the passenger cabin isn’t always the best solution because of the additional labor requirements, space and time constraints, weight limits, and hazardous-goods restrictions.