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Emirates puts giant A380 passenger jet to work hauling cargo

Dubai-based Emirates is operating "ghost flights" with an A380 jumbo jet - no passengers, just cargo. (Photo: Emirates Group)

Emirates said Wednesday it has deployed the Airbus A380, a massive double-deck passenger aircraft, for the first time in a dedicated cargo operation and plans to add more cargo-only flights in November.

The first A380 passenger freighter recently transported medical supplies from Seoul, South Korea, to Amsterdam via its home base in Dubai.

Emirates is repurposing the aircraft for cargo charter service to help make up for business lost when the coronavirus pandemic stunted passenger travel. The move comes as businesses scramble for airlift to move goods during the peak shipping season and the world experiences a second wave of COVID-19 that has increased the need again for critical medical supplies, including personal protective equipment, test kits and thermometers.

Airlines are operating thousands of mini-freighters around the world to help replace some of the cargo capacity lost from suspended passenger operations. These empty “ghost flights” only carry cargo in the lower hold, but many airlines are strapping boxes into seats and placing them in overhead bins. Several have pulled out the seats to transport more goods per flight.

Despite its size, the A380 was never great for moving large amounts of cargo. It could carry up to 850 passengers, depending on the configuration (Emirates planes have seating for 489 to 615 people), but all those people and baggage limited the room for cargo. Full flights can result in cargo being bumped. 

Emirates currently has 11 A380s in service and 103 parked, according to

Emirates said engineers were able to change the belly configuration of the plane to enable it to hold 50 tons of cargo, up from the normal 37.5 tons of available payload without passengers or luggage.

The cargo division is working to further optimize the A380’s cargo capacity through seat loading of cargo. 

Emirates SkyCargo already operates temporary freighters with 14 modified Boeing 777-300 Extended Range aircraft that have had their Economy seats removed for greater cabin utilization, in addition to 11 pure 777 freighters.

Emirates has strict criteria for determining what types of cargo can go in the seats and overhead bins. Valuable cargo and cargo containing liquids are not allowed in the cabin, and most perishables such as fruits and vegetables must also ride in the bellyhold. Exceptions include cut and preserved flowers and plants and dry, non-smelling fruits and vegetables.

Emirates SkyCargo requires that all packaging must be able to contain any damage to the cargo and include an internal absorbent layer.

Medical supplies most frequently get loaded in the cabin because they are light and lend themselves to being packaged in boxes that can be easily loaded and secured. Other items the airline says it has carried in the cabin include garments, sporting goods, children’s toys without batteries, empty soap dispensers, bottle caps for personal care products, dental supplies and dry food such as pine nuts and cardamom.

Portugese charter operator Hi Fly is the only known carrier to have modified an A380 for cargo by removing the seats. Last week, the airline said it would phase out its A380 when the  lease term expires at the end of the year.

Air France-KLM and Lufthansa also retired their A380s this year. The four-engine planes are expensive to operate, and the coronavirus pandemic drastically reduced demand for very large aircraft. 

Airbus has said it will end A380 production late next year after weaker-than-projected sales. Only 15 airlines ever operated the 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 from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. 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]