(Updated April 24, 9:00 A.M. ET with details on Lufthansa Airlines and United Airlines)
After receiving clarification on whether they can put cargo in the passenger cabin, U.S. airlines are asking the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to go further and place boxes in the seats, or even remove the seats for extra cargo capacity.
Several foreign airlines are putting light cargo in the upper deck where people normally sit as an innovative way to maximize load efficiency for face masks and other personal protective equipment in urgent need, but their U.S. counterparts are limited to using the bellyhold. American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL) and Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL), in particular, have expressed interest in carrying shipments upstairs.
Last week, the FAA issued a safety alert informing airlines they can use the cabin as long as they follow all regulations for the safe carriage of cargo. But the guidance was narrow. It only advised that shipments can be stored under seats, in overhead bins or in stowage closets.
And those areas are only permitted provided the weight of each box doesn’t exceed the approved weights for each area, according to international safety standards.
United Airlines is taking advantage of the guidance to run test flights carrying mail in the cabin, Cargo President Jan Krems said in a message to customers.
Domestic carriers on Thursday petitioned for more flexibility when placing cargo in the passenger section.
In an online filing with the FAA, the trade association Airlines for America asked for an immediate two-year exemption from existing rules so carriers can place shipments on passenger seats for domestic and international flights. The A4A proposed a maximum of 50 lbs. would be placed in each seat, that cargo be loaded to allow sufficient access for firefighting with available fire extinguishers, and that a minimum of two additional crew members ride in the cabin to detect and fight fire. Long-range aircraft should carry three xtra crew members, it said.
As previously reported, Delta recently applied to the FAA to carry cargo in the passenger cabin. On Wednesday’s earnings call with analysts, CEO Ed Bastian strayed ahead of the process, saying the airline is taking seats off a few widebody aircraft on international routes to create more space for cargo.
“Delta … is also working together with Airlines for America to obtain approvals in order to place shipments in seats and remove seats on aircraft to facilitate the transportation of cargo in the passenger cabin,” the airline said in a statement provided to FreightWaves.
The A4A exemption request made no mention of removing seats on the main deck for cargo.
If airlines want to put boxes on the seats, or take them out, they will first have to provide data substantiating that the new load factor can be safely restrained because the only restraint currently allowed is a seat belt, an FAA supervisor said on condition of anonymity because the person is not authorized to speak to the media.
Other civil aviation authorities have been quick to adjust their rules and formally certify new configurations to help carriers move medical supplies needed for combating the COVID-19 disease.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency is granting supplemental certificates to temporarily modify passenger cabins with cargo seat bags that allow more dense loading without making structural changes to the plane. And Transport Canada gave Air Canada permission to pull the seats in three large aircraft to create extra cargo volume.
On Thursday, Jazz Aviation, a regional carrier that flies under contract with Air Canada as Air Canada Express, said it will be the first operator for the recently approved Dash 8-400 Simplified Package Freighter. De Havilland Aircraft of Canada, the plane’s maker, will reconfigure the turboprop by removing the seats and seat track covers in the passenger cabin. The reconfiguration, which was approved by Transport Canada, includes up to 17 nets.
De Havilland has ordered 13 conversion kits for Jazz, which will provide almost 18,000 pounds of payload and 1,150 cubic feet of space for cargo. The planes will be used to make deliveries of essential supplies on short-and-medium-haul routes for Air Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lufthansa Airlines has removed seats on four passenger aircraft under approval from the the Luftfahrtbundesamt (Federal Aviation Authority) in Germany, with two more slated for conversion, spokesman Andreas Pauker said.
Using passenger planes as cargo-only vehicles caught on like wildfire in mid-March when airlines began grounding most of their fleets because of coronavirus travel bans, creating an acute shortage of lift for shippers that rely on the lower holds of scheduled flights to move goods.
With all-cargo carriers completely booked, passenger airlines, desperate to make money with so many assets idle, began offering dedicated cargo charters to big logistics companies and shippers. The planes only offer about a third the space in a full freighter of the same type but can still move large amounts of cargo. Some carriers have since established scheduled routes for these “mini-freighters,” while others looked for ways to take advantage of the passenger section.
In response to interest in using the passenger area for cargo, the International Air Transport Association last week published a guide on regulatory requirements, cargo preparation, proper weight and balance, use of restraints, and loading and unloading.
Air Canada (TSX: AC) said its first flight with a modified (no seats) Boeing 777-300 ER arrived on April 18 from Shanghai via Tokyo with more than 20 tons of face masks. The airline has operated 106 all-cargo flights since March 22, mostly carrying medical supplies from Asia and Europe to Canada, and plans to operate up to 20 flights per week using a combination of its newly converted planes and regular passenger jets. Air Canada is also operating special cargo flights to South America.
Virgin Atlantic this month has operated six on-demand cargo flights for the UK’s National Health Service, with 787-9 passenger planes from Shanghai bringing more than 100 tons of medical equipment and supplies to London Heathrow International Airport. Medical cargo is carried in the cabin, too, with special permission from China’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Each flight is manned by seven pilots and four cabin crew, who rotate duties and rest. Two more flights are scheduled in April.
Also, Swiss International Airlines this week said it transported syringes and several million surgical masks from Shanghai to Geneva on a Boeing 777 passenger jet for Geneva University Hospital. Boxes were also stored in the passenger cabin. To date, Swiss has operated about 30 cargo flights from Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong to Switzerland.
Aer Lingus, with help from affiliate IAG Cargo, is making more than 60 special cargo missions from China to Ireland using Airbus A330 jets. Personal protective equipment is being carried in seats normally reserved for passengers. Each flight includes a spare pilot so crews don’t have to disembark in China and be subject to a 14-day quarantine. The Irish government ordered the medical equipment and supplies, with flights expected to continue until May.
Other carriers using seat areas for cargo include LATAM Airlines, China Eastern and Lufthansa.