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EU ends airline exemption for cargo in passenger cabin

Aviation agency says temporary rule change is no longer needed to support global commerce

Lufthansa made its first passenger-freighter flight with seats removed from Shenzhen, China, on May 18, 2020. (Photo: Lufthansa)

European aviation regulators said Monday they won’t extend a safety exemption allowing airlines to carry critical supplies in the passenger cabin to make up for capacity lost when the pandemic closed down most commercial flights.

“The logistical challenges that arose in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 crisis no longer exist to the same extent,” the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said in a notice. The permission for cabin cargo expires July 31.

EASA was one of the first civil aviation authorities to exempt airlines from requirements to submit a supplemental type certificate for proposed structural modifications or changes to the approved use of aircraft systems. A large number of airlines repurposed a portion of their grounded fleets for dedicated cargo-only flights to take advantage of high demand and rates. An early driver of passenger-freighters was the urgent need for COVID medical supplies and protective equipment.

The waivers allowed airlines to  fly with light cargo in the seats, overhead bins and storage areas, or even to remove seats for floor-loading boxes in the entire cabin, during a period of depressed passenger demand and undersupply of freight transport. Regulators supported the change to help keep supply chains functioning and airlines survive with most revenue cut off.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s exemption to carry cargo in the cabin when passengers aren’t present expired at the end of 2021. Most U.S. carriers made limited use of the temporary flexibility, preferring to carry most loads entirely in the lower hold because of the extra personnel and time required to handload individual boxes through the narrow passenger doors and secure them. Handling containerized freight, which is possible with main-deck freighters and the lower hold of large passenger aircraft, is much more efficient.

Airfreight capacity has not fully recovered from the pull-down of passenger traffic two years ago, but the market is no longer in crisis. There is about 14% less cargo space on aircraft today than in 2019 because passenger airlines have yet to return to full passenger operations, especially for international business. Almost 60% of the available space for cargo comes in the belly of passenger aircraft, with all-cargo jets providing the rest of the space. 

Several airlines are seeking EASA approval for permanent design changes to fly passenger aircraft in dedicated cargo operations with the seats removed. Those modifications are more involved and meet standard safety requirements, unlike the temporary exemptions.

Click here for more American Shipper/FreightWaves 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. 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]