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Scheduled cargo flights with passenger planes gain traction

Virgin Atlantic pumps up its schedule; more Lufthansa cargo rides in seats

Virgin Atlantic has repurposed several planes for the new cargo mission. (Photo: Virgin Atlantic)

(Updated 11:30 April 29, 11:30 A.M. ET with details on Shanghai route)

Virgin Atlantic is the latest airline to put greater resources into operating scheduled cargo routes after the industry started in March offering some on-demand cargo charters when the primary market for carrying people dried up with the coronavirus pandemic.

When that idea took off, airlines put more unused assets into cargo service flying on regular routes with set schedules, better enabling shippers to plan ahead and book blocks of space rather than entire aircraft.

On Tuesday, U.K.-based Virgin Atlantic said it will operate 90 dedicated cargo flights per week in May to help shippers that are struggling to move goods because nearly 90% of passenger service went away — and with it the cargo space in the lower hold of those planes.

Virgin will operate routes with greater frequency to key markets in the U.S., Hong Kong and China, India, Israel, and South Africa. Last week it said it would open scheduled cargo service to Tel Aviv, Israel, beginning May 6. It will also operate special cargo flights through Dublin for the first time, enabling Ireland’s medical technology, electronics and other industries to achieve same-day connections to New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv and Johannesburg.

The airline is using 10 Boeing 787-9 aircraft, which can carry up to 55 tons of cargo.

The May flying program includes:

• 17 flights a week to/from New York JFK.

• Nine flights a week to/from Los Angeles.

• Twice weekly services from JFK and Los Angeles to Dublin.

• Twice weekly departures from Dublin to London.

• Daily flights to/from Shanghai through July. Capacity is on general sale on flights out of UK, but exclusively used for National Health Service from Shanghai.

• Four flights per week to/from Hong Kong.

• Two weekly flights to/from Tel Aviv.

• Three flights per week to/from Johannesburg.

• The resumption of two weekly flights to/from Mumbai, India.

Virgin’s cargo operation now has 14 aircraft, including four Airbus A350 aircraft capable of carrying up to 49 tons of goods. The airline says it averages 13 flights per week for customers that book the entire plane on an ad hoc basis.

In related news, Lufthansa Airlines is flying two daily flights between Beijing and Munich, with four Airbus A350 aircraft that have been modified to carry boxes of personal protective equipment, mainly masks, in the passenger seats.

It is flying similar missions with six Airbus A330 planes based in Frankfurt, Germany.

The daily cargo flights with passenger jets are expected to continue at least through mid-May, Lufthansa said.

Virgin also is putting cargo in seats.

Other airlines with major scheduled operations include Delta and American.

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 from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. 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]