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Korean Air jettisons passenger seats to up cargo capacity

New IATA data shows how many aircraft have had cabin makeovers as carriers take advantage of strong airfreight market

Korean Air technicians lift out the last seats in a Boeing 777-300 to allow floor-loading of cargo. (Photo: Korean Air)

Projections that the capacity shortage in air cargo could last into next year and beyond are prompting some passenger airlines to spend money removing seats to make room for more boxes of goods.

Recent reconfigurations are taking place in Asia, with Korean Air the latest to take the plunge. 

About 150 aircraft around the world have had their seats completely removed to increase cargo volume, Glyn Hughes, global head of cargo for the International Air Transport Association said Wednesday during a media briefing.

Most reconfigurations involve widebody aircraft typically deployed on long-haul international routes, including a couple of Airbus A380 super jumbo jets. But a significant number of single-aisle Airbus A321s have also been modified for floor-loading cargo in the cabin, enabling them to carry 20 to 25 tons of cargo, he added.

Last month, for example, Singapore budget carrier Scoot began operating the first of two smaller jets with seats removed on short-haul cargo routes.

On Tuesday, Korean Air announced its first-ever cargo flight utilizing a passenger aircraft without seats. The carrier said it added 10.8 tons of available payload to a Boeing 777-300 by gutting the cabin of its 269 seats, including 42 premium seats. The flight originated in Seoul, South Korea, and arrived at Rickenbacker International Airport in Columbus, Ohio, carrying auto parts, electronic devices and garments.

Rickenbacker is one of the few dedicated cargo airports receiving significant numbers of cargo-only passenger flights, mostly operated by Emirates until now. 

The 777-300 is considered a very cargo-capable aircraft even when flying passengers because it can carry about 30 to 40 tons in the cargo hold. Without people onboard the payload rises to 55 tons. Removing the seats adds another 10 to 15 tons of capacity, according to airline industry officials. 

Korean said the cabin modification required careful removal of wiring for the in-flight entertainment system and installation of floor locks to keep cargo secured.

Taking out seats requires additional certification from regulatory authorities. 

Airlines are temporarily dedicating some aircraft to cargo operations to capitalize on red-hot demand and rates for cargo while their passenger flying remains depressed. Some are going further and reconfiguring aircraft. Taking out seats isn’t the equivalent of a full cargo conversion, which typically happens when planes reach their passenger lifespan of about 15 to 18 years. Small doors prevent the upper deck from taking containers, forcing airlines to manually load boxes one by one.

Korean’s move comes as airfreight rates out of Asia are rising, with carriers expected to command premium pricing into December as the traditional holiday shipping season coincides with low retail inventory levels, tight ocean capacity, new releases of popular consumer devices by big tech companies and demand for COVID-related medical supplies.

The airline has been using idle 777-300s, Boeing 787-9 and Airbus 330-300 passenger aircraft as auxiliary freighters since the start of the pandemic, but until now they have carried shipments in the traditional cargo area below the main deck. Korean has averaged 420 cargo-only flights per month, with an average volume of 12,000 tons. It innovated again in June by using special bags to hold cargo in seats. 

Korean was the rare airline to turn a profit in the second quarter on the strength of its cargo operation, which includes a fleet of 23 Boeing 747 all-cargo aircraft. The combination of passenger freighters and pure freighters helped overcome a huge drop in passenger revenue associated with the grounding of flights because of coronavirus concerns. 

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, another combination carrier, also recently transformed two 777s into twin-deck freighters

Delta Air Lines is the only U.S. carrier so far that plans to yank seats from passenger cabins for cargo purposes. 

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 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. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. 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]