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Who is king of cargo-only passenger flights?

ne year into the COVID pandemic, AskWaves finds out which airlines put the most mini-freighters into the sky

Emirates last year began operating Airbus A380 jumbo jets as passenger freighters, with boxes loaded on seats in the cabin to maximize volume. (Photos: Emirates)

When COVID decimated passenger travel last year, airlines pivoted to air cargo like never before, turning many idle aircraft into temporary freighters. It was an innovation born of necessity that helped bring in much-needed cash. 

Shippers were desperate when nearly all widebody aircraft were eliminated from service a year ago, because they carry more than 50% of total air cargo in the hold below people’s feet. Big freighters couldn’t make up the difference and airfreight rates skyrocketed. High yields convinced airlines to repurpose aircraft for cargo customers, even though passenger aircraft hold fewer goods by volume than pure freighters that can load heavy containers on the main deck.

In most cases, airlines flew cargo-only flights with shipments in the belly. But many airlines innovated further by putting personal protective equipment, clothing, toys and other lightweight boxes in the passenger cabin to increase capacity and revenue. They used special seat bags or netting to secure the boxes and also filled the overhead bins. And some airlines took more drastic steps by removing seats so they could floor-load boxes. Loading and unloading shipments in the passenger compartment is much more labor-intensive because boxes had to be hand-loaded through the narrow doors and aisles, but several carriers said the returns justified the extra expense.

So 12 months into the coronavirus pandemic, which airlines were most aggressive shifting to cargo and operated the most passenger freighters?

The winner, according to an informal FreightWaves survey of the largest international passenger airlines and company statements, is Emirates. The Dubai-based airline flew more than 27,800 flights in dedicated cargo mode, hauling more than 100,000 tons of essential supplies such as PPE, COVID-19 test kits, ventilators, vaccines and food.

Emirates, which also runs a fleet of Boeing 777 freighters, used nearly 90 passenger aircraft for cargo-specific operations at one point. 

In November, Emirates began using its giant Airbus A80 twin-deck passenger plane in select cargo charter operations. As passenger travel has incrementally picked up, the airline has gradually moved more toward its traditional model.

Qatar Airways is likely among the top three airlines in terms of cargo-only flights over the past year, but officials declined to provide a specific breakdown of freighter activity. The company said it operated more than 55,000 freighter and passenger freighter flights. It modified six 777-300 Extended Range planes by pulling the seats for extra cargo capacity.  Its fleet includes 24 Boeing 777 and two 747-8 freighters.

IAG Cargo declined to provide figures for passenger-freighter flights.

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, Eric 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. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]