Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) commenced cargo-only flights with passenger aircraft between the U.S., Europe and India on Sunday to meet demand from business amid a severe shortage of transport capacity to move goods by air, the company announced Thursday.
The Atlanta-based carrier is operating passenger freighters daily between New York’s JFK airport and Madrid using a Boeing 767-400 to help customers in the fashion industry ship goods to the U.S. before the holidays. It also launched flights three times per week between JFK and Dublin with an Airbus A330-300 and between JFK and Atlanta to Mumbai, via Frankfurt, Germany, using A330-200/300 aircraft. Primary commodities being booked include pharmaceuticals, vaccines, medical supplies and general cargo, Delta said.
Governments in Europe, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Spain, are closing down public activities and limiting travel to contain a new spike in coronavirus infections, which is putting pressure on airlines to scale back flight schedules and save money until customers return to the skies again.
Reductions in passenger flights mean fewer options to ship freight below the main deck. About 60% of global cargo capacity disappeared this year when the coronavirus destroyed travel demand and forced airlines to park most of their fleets. All-cargo operators stepped into the void with extra equipment and frequencies, while many passenger airlines pivoted to cargo to keep some aircraft and crews busy as cargo yields soared.
Many airlines, including Delta, are increasing carrying capacity on some flights by placing light boxes in seats, overhead bins and storage closets in the main cabin. The International Air Transport Association estimated this week that there are 2,500 passenger aircraft operating as mini-freighters with cargo in the cabin. The total number of passenger freighters in use is greater than that.
“Given the travel constraints within Europe, we are strategically adding cargo capacity in Spain, Ireland and Germany to support overall passenger and cargo growth,” said Shawn Cole, Delta’s vice president of cargo, in a statement. “There is high demand for pharmaceutical shipments from India because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this cargo solution ensures we can keep vital supply chains moving to the United States.”
In May, Delta reintroduced three passenger flights from Atlanta and Detroit to Frankfurt and London, saying the strength of cargo business would cover for the limited number of passengers and make the flights profitable.
Delta has operated more than 1,600 dedicated cargo flights since March and is now averaging more than 20 flights per week with auxiliary freighters.
With Federal Aviation Administration permission, Delta in mid-September removed seats from a Boeing 777-200 Extended Range aircraft to allow for floor-loading of cargo. The modification enabled Delta to carry 10,000 more pounds, which represents a 35% increase in available payload. But after operating for a few weeks, Delta retired the aircraft along with the rest of its 777 fleet at the end of October.
“There are no plans to convert additional aircraft,” spokeswoman Debbie Sheehan said in an email.
Meanwhile, Delta Cargo said this week that it will no longer offer GPS On-Demand service, effective Dec. 1. The GPS tracking costs $100 per device. Although Delta won’t attach a GPS device to shipments after that date, customers can add approved devices on their own and Delta’s Cargo Control Center will monitor the signal to track the shipment’s location. Delta’s Critical shipments products will continue to be offered with 24/7 monitoring by the cargo center.
“We are increasingly seeing customers use their own GPS devices, but they continue to want to have the monitoring by the Delta Cargo Control Center, so we are actively supporting those customers with that request,” Sheehan explained.