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United Airlines surpasses 5,000 cargo-only flights since March

United Airlines is operating many planes as freighters. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) has operated more than 5,000 cargo-only flights since March 19, a significant milestone for an airline where passenger service dominated before the pandemic.

The passenger freighters have transported more than 170 million pounds of cargo, including medical supplies for the COVID-19 response, food aid and commodities for U.S. military bases, United said Wednesday on its blog.

The Chicago-based carrier quickly switched gears to transition Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft idled by the pandemic shutdown into dedicated cargo service, resulting in a 36% jump in second-quarter cargo revenue compared to 2019. It is able to maximize capacity on some flights by placing mail and light boxes in the seats and overhead bins. Cargo, which represented more than a quarter of total revenue, went from a little-recognized side business to a major component propping up the company during a crisis.

“United has played a critical role in keeping global supply chains stable during the pandemic as we deliver urgently needed goods around the world. These past few months have created challenges that I have never seen in my 30-plus years of experience working within the air cargo and freight forwarding industry,” United Cargo President Jan Krems said. “However, I’m proud of our teams for staying focused on our mission to provide high-quality service and to keep our customers connected with the goods they need most.”

Many passenger airlines turned aircraft into auxiliary freighters to help meet an airfreight transportation shortage caused by the withdrawal of most passenger networks, but few have been as prolific as United. Since late July, it has operated 1,000 cargo-dedicated flights, and officials say they plan to keep up the pace during the third quarter.

American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL) has flown an estimated 2,000 mini-freighter missions so far, moving more than 50 million pounds. It said it would double cargo-only flights from August to more than 1,000 in September. Air Canada (TSX: AC), which also quickly transitioned to full cargo mode and even modified some aircraft by removing seats, has flown about 2,300 cargo-only flights. And International Airlines Group, parent of British Airways, has more than 2,000 cargo-only flights under its belt, including 1,875 during the second quarter.

United said it has hauled more than 107 million pounds of medical supplies for the COVID-19 response on temporary freighters as well as passenger flights, where cargo shares the lower deck with baggage.

It also helped ferry food from Los Angeles to Guam under the auspices of a Department of Agriculture program for helping communities facing food shortages because of the pandemic. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch. / Contact: [email protected]


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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 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]