Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) unbolted and removed all the seats from a Boeing 777 passenger airplane to make room for cargo shipments and then decommissioned it two months later along with the rest of its 777 fleet, raising the question: Why bother?
The Federal Aviation Administration certified Delta’s plan to remove seats from a 777-200 Extended Range aircraft at the end of August, enabling more than 10,000 additional pounds of cargo to be carried on the main deck. The aircraft was retired at the end of October, spokeswoman Debbie Sheehan confirmed.
“There are no plans to convert additional aircraft,” she said.
The seat removal process can take several days, according to industry officials, which means Delta only had use of the stripped-down 777 for eight weeks. Sheehan didn’t disclose how many cargo-only flights the passenger freighter conducted.
Delta incurred lower modification costs because it isn’t putting the seats back. Given the hot state of the market, executives likely calculated that modifying the 777 was worthwhile to generate some additional revenue before retirement.
International airlines have stripped seats from nearly 160 aircraft this year so the cabin floor can be utilized to stack light boxes and increase carrying capacity as demand soars for airlift to move goods, according to the International Air Transport Association. But no U.S. airlines, besides Delta, have opted to pull seats for floor-loading of cargo despite the FAA granting broad permission in July.
Delta has operated more than 1,600 passenger-freighter flights since March and last week added new flights to Europe and India.
Removing seats is the most aggressive step for taking advantage of the hot air cargo market. Several thousand aircraft were repurposed for dedicated cargo transport, with cargo carried in the traditional lower hold and sometimes in passenger seats and overhead bins, after the coronavirus pandemic forced the shutdown of most international passenger operations. The resulting shortage of aircraft rapidly boosted yields, attracting airlines to offer scheduled and charter cargo service as a way to replace lost passenger revenue.
The FAA ruling came after the surge in demand for personal protective equipment waned last summer, which removed some of the urgency to create more temporary cargo space on aircraft. Industry watchers assumed Delta wouldn’t opt to reconfigure any 777s because the short payback period wasn’t worth the engineering expense and few freight forwarders were aware the plane was being marketed.
But Phil Seymour, president of aviation consultancy IBA Group, said removal of seats isn’t a major difficulty and could be managed by eight to 10 mechanics.
Some airlines have recouped the tear-down expense with as few as 10 mini-freighter flights from China to the U.S., he told FreightWaves.
So long, triple sevens
Delta decided in May to retire its 18 twin-aisle 777s as part of drastic cost-cutting efforts to cope with the devastating impact of the coronavirus crisis. The company, which began flying the 777 in 1999, recently reported third-quarter revenue fell $9.5 billion compared to last year.
Delta is shrinking its fleet to align with much lower passenger demand. The decision was also based on fuel efficiency.The carrier will rely on the Airbus A330 and A350 instead of the 777s for long-haul flights. The A350-900s that will directly replace the 777s burn 21% less fuel per seat.
The 777s, which are highly regarded in the airfreight industry for their ability to handle large payloads, were active most of the year as auxiliary freighters.