It took the Federal Aviation Administration two months to authorize U.S. airlines to remove seats from passenger aircraft for cargo purposes. Air Canada (TSX: AC) received its governmental OK in a week.
Industry urgency to innovate also was greater north of the border. Canada’s flag carrier was already flying cabin-loaded flights by mid-April, one month before U.S. carriers even applied through their trade association to remove seats from their airplanes.
The delay may have cost U.S. carriers their window of opportunity to maximize returns from transforming aircraft in response to space shortages caused by the withdrawal of passenger service due to the coronavirus.
American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL), Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) and United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) threw airplanes into cargo-only service in late March, but many international airlines went further and removed seats from some aircraft to create room in the passenger cabins for more boxes of personal protection equipment and other in-demand products. Shipping rates have since fallen significantly. They may not be high enough to justify conversion costs at this point, although Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific recently modified its first two passenger freighters for floor-loading. But with rates starting to climb again and peak shipping season approaching, cargo-only freighters are expected to be in high demand again.
Among the Big Three carriers, only Delta appears interested in taking advantage of the seat-removal option.
“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.
“We are not currently utilizing this method and don’t have plans at the moment to remove seats or modify cabin space,” American Airlines spokeswoman Laura Bassel said in an email.
United Airlines is similarly sticking to cabin cargo in seats and overhead bins, a spokeswoman confirmed.
Government bureaucracies aren’t known for speed when it comes to regulatory decisions, but Transport Canada was lightning-fast responding to Air Canada’s request to exempt some airplanes from existing operating certificates. European carriers were also able to get emergency exemptions from civil aviation authorities to carry medical coverings and other light products in the cabin.
Air Canada didn’t waste any time when it heard other airlines were planning to load boxes in passenger seats. An internal engineering panel met on March 23 and launched a feasibility study and risk assessment of seat removal. On April 1, airline officials gave the go-ahead to reconfigure three Boeing 777-300 aircraft. Seven days later they received regulatory approval for the conversion, and on April 14 Transport Canada certified the airplanes for commercial operation, said Johanne Cadorette, manager of global marketing and communications for Air Canada Cargo.
Avianor, an aircraft maintenance and cabin integration specialist in Montreal, removed 422 passenger seats and designated cargo loading zones for lightweight boxes restrained with cargo nets. The conversions, which doubled the aircraft’s volumetric capacity, took three days to complete, and the first cabin-loaded flight began operating April 18, Cadorette said.
Since then, Air Canada and Avianor have modified a fourth 777 and three Airbus A333 twin-aisle aircraft. The Airbus approvals took less than a week.
The decision to replace the A333 seats was made easier because they are recently purchased used aircraft that were scheduled to have their seats replaced, according to Cadorette.
Air Canada has operated hundreds of flights with the seven seatless passenger freighters – or “preighters.” They helped the airline increase revenue by 52% in the second quarter from the prior year. In July, it began sending converted aircraft to Atlanta; Havana; Istanbul; Bogota, Colombia; and Quito, Ecuador.
“The converted aircraft are part of our strategy to continue offering capacity where passenger flights are not available. There is a lot of demand to use the cabins for mail and some perishables, in addition to continued demand for personal protective equipment,” Cadorette said.
Unique safety factors
Air Canada was able to expedite approval because company officials, the engineering firm that developed the conversion specifications and Canadian aviation authorities sat in the same room and went through all safety factors together, said a well-connected industry source familiar with the process. The person asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize an ongoing role.
Since there are no fire suppression systems in aircraft passenger cabins, Air Canada is using specially trained maintenance engineers to ride in the cabin as marshals. Their job is to ensure the cargo is loaded and secured safely, according to customized plans, check labels for weight and flammable material, and act as firefighters in the air if necessary, according to Air Canada.
Safety issues airlines, regulators and manufacturers have to consider for in-cabin cargo include: the number and type of fire extinguishers (halon, water, or chemical); weight and balance issues; and the type of cargo restraints and how they are secured to the floor.
In Cathay Pacific’s case, the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department requires the airline to place cargo in customized bags made from a fire-retardant material that helps keep it intact.
Air Canada came up with a system to divide the aircraft into zones to ensure the cargo weight is distributed properly. Cargo in the cabin must be placed in 36 positions, each with unique weight, shape and height limitations, according to the company and the industry official. When boxes aren’t uniform size it adds time to the process.
Weight and balance are critical to flight planning and impact the route, fuel burn and takeoff and landing speeds. Technicians use special software that considers variables such as weather, wind speed and cargo weight.
U.S. airlines have the additional complication of having to follow Transportation Security Administration rules for 100% screening of cargo on passenger planes even if there are no passengers on board, the source said.