Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) is the only major U.S. airline that currently plans to take advantage of federal authorization to strip passenger aircraft of their seats and substitute boxes of cargo.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month issued an exemption for domestic airlines to operate aircraft with floor-loaded cargo in the cabin, but the determination came after an airfreight bubble. Industry watchers wondered whether rates were still high enough to justify the conversion expense. Many international airlines, with the help of their civil aviation authorities, quickly modified aircraft interiors to carry cabin cargo months ago.
“Delta is evaluating the use and opportunity of removing seats in aircraft for cargo purposes. We have submitted the required documents to the FAA for certification,” spokeswoman Debbie Sheehan said. Delta didn’t indicate how many aircraft it would transform into twin-deck auxiliary freighters.
Other airlines don’t plan to make any engineering changes to accommodate cargo on the upper deck.
“We are not currently utilizing this method and don’t have plans at the moment to remove seats or modify cabin space,” American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL) spokeswoman Laura Bassel said in an email.
United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) is similarly sticking to cabin cargo in seats and overhead bins, a spokeswoman confirmed.
“We have evaluated the option of removing seats but are not planning on doing so at this time,” said Rick Bendix, manager of cargo marketing and business development at Alaska Airlines (NYSE: ALK).
Southwest Airlines, which operates narrow-body aircraft on a mostly domestic network, previously said it reversed plans to offer airplanes for cargo charters when air travel picked up slightly this summer.
Air Canada began operating seatless passenger planes in cargo-only mode in mid-April. The company engaged Transport Canada to get certified within a week, while the FAA took two months to approve a request form U.S. carriers to remove seats.
Airlines saw an opportunity as the pandemic destroyed travel demand to put idle aircraft to work hauling cargo for logistics companies and big shippers. Most of these mini-freighters are deployed with cargo only in the belly, where it traditionally rides along with passenger baggage. But on certain flights, airlines will carry boxes and mail bags on seats and in overhead compartments designed for carry-on bags. A few have gone all the way and removed seats on some aircraft.
Several airlines are bringing in much higher cargo revenue this year than ever, with Taiwan-based China Airlines and Korean Air even posting profits on the strength of their cargo business. Both airlines have the added advantage of being combination carriers, meaning they also operate fleets of all-cargo aircraft.
Airfreight rates fell from sky-high levels in the spring after the initial run on face masks and other hospital gear dissipated, leading airlines to remove some auxiliary freighters from service. But demand and rates are rising again. As the traditional peak shipping season approaches, interest in passenger freighters is expected to increase and airlines could be tempted to clear seats from more cabins.